21 February 2014

Slimbridge Wetland Centre

Wildfowl and Wetlands

I am watching you

In these sodden days of argument and misery, of slime and stench, water and more water, what better place for a day out than a Wetland Centre?

A View from the Bridge (The Sloane Observation Tower)

When Peter Scott's father, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, wrote to his wife from his ill-fated Antarctic expedition in 1911, he urged her to make their son, interested in Natural History, if you can; it is better than games......  Peter was only two at the time, but the encouragement worked, eventually.  After developing his talents as an artist, and also winning a bronze medal for dinghy sailing at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, he became an officer in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, during which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry.  

Sir Peter Scott 1909 - 1989 (by Jacqueline Shackleton)

He was also a competitive ice-skater, and a gliding champion, but his real claim to fame came when, having seen a Lesser White-fronted Goose in Gloucestershire, he founded the Severn Wildfowl Trust (which became the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) at Slimbridge, where he bought a cottage and some land and lived for the rest of his life.  This also led to the BBC Natural History Unit making its home in Bristol, and, separately, also inspired Peter to be one of the founders, and the first chairman, of the World Wildlife Fund, in 1961.

A Bird's Eye View

Peter also achieved fame for his wildlife TV programme, Look, which ran from 1955 to 1981, and which was probably one of the reasons I became interested in birds.....  I remember visiting Slimbridge with my parents as a very young thing, and when I returned this week found that although there have been huge developments on the site, there was something very familiar about it, and loved it, despite the rain.

Good to see you back!

It was a good time to visit, as the mild winter (yes it has been mild) has meant that many birds have wintered here when they might have gone further south.  Also, the rain (we have had some it is true) has kept the wetlands wet and the wildfowl happy - after all, it's all just water off a duck's back!

A Desert of Lapwings

The whole site covers 120 acres.  There are (at least) twelve hides as well as three observatories.  From the Sloane Observation Tower you can see from the Cotswolds to the Forest of Dean across the Severn, and in the Peng Observatory, you can sit in comfort and watch the birds through glass walls.  Many of the birds come here of their own free will, as part of their migratory life style.  These two Pintail (Anas Acuta) are representatives of one of the commonest ducks in the world (despite recent declines especially in North America), with some 5.4 million individuals covering 11 million square miles across the entire northern hemisphere.  Many winter in the UK, though only about 30 pairs breed here.

A pair of Northern Pintail

In contrast, this Hawaiian Goose is the world's rarest goose, and was on the brink of extinction with only 30 birds left in 1952 when Peter Scott introduced it to Slimbridge. There are now some 2,500 individuals around the world, about half of whom live in the wild.  It is the State Bird of Hawaii.

The Nene, or Hawaiian, Goose

You do not have to be a twitcher to enjoy sighting different species of birds here.  I am no expert, but with the help of a book, and the very helpful posters displayed around the hides, it is not difficult to pick out birds, even though they seem to be happily muddled up together on the lakes.

Common Goldeneye (m)

Once you start getting the hang of it, then you can start to see how different they are.  Some dabble at the surface, some dive.  Some seem to be happy on their own, some paddle about in pairs, and some flock, or spring.

Common Pochard (m)

Their names are fascinating too, as some, like the Goldeneye, are pretty obvious, and some, like the Wigeon, apparently derive onomatopoeically from their call.  The Pochard is so called because it pokes or poaches when it delves for food.

Eurasian Wigeon (m)

But who knows how the Tufted Duck got his name?

Tufted Duck (m)

At the time of my visit, the board recording latest wildlife sightings (i.e. not counting the permanently resident birds and animals) listed 67 species of bird, of which 23 were wildfowl and 12 were waders. The total of these sightings was 24,288, though some of these, such as the solitary Puffin and a similarly lonely Razorbill, were only seen on one day. By far the most numerous was the Lapwing, with 7,655 individuals counted, but there were also thousands of Wigeon, Teal, Mallard, Golden Plover and Dunlin. These numbers vary daily, however, and on February 21st, 2,500 Shoveler were also noted (as opposed to the 332 when I was there).  There were 139 Bewick's Swan, each with his or her completely individual upper beak markings, and 135 Mute Swan, all quite sociably getting along well together.....

A gaggle of swans - Mute on the left and Bewick's on the right, with a cygnet in the middle

And in the air, on the water, and waddling amongst the visitors on the paths, were almost 1000 various geese, of whom 503 were Greylag......

A landing party - a Skein of Greylag Geese whiffling down

For many visitors an additional attraction to the wildlife that abounds at Slimbridge is the collection of exotic species. There are representatives of all six species of Flamingo here and the new Flamingo Lagoon is the best place to view the extraordinary beaked profile of the Greater Flamingo, little changed from fossils of these creatures that are 50 million years old.

Greater Flamingo

While on the other side of the reserve the richly coloured Caribbean variety creates a lively spectacle.

The Caribbean Flamingo dance

As the place is fox-proof and carefully managed, there are plenty of more mundane birds to see as well, from Blue Tits to Blackbirds, Robins to Thrushes.  At this time of year these are starting to sing, adding another dimension to the pleasures of a walk round here.  There are some American River Otters to see as well, and, if you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of a Water Vole, or a Kingfisher.

A Clattering of Jackdaws, happy to be living in the Wetlands

Slimbridge is a fine place for a day out, even if the weather is not clement.  There are eight other Wetland Centres in the UK, however, so have a look at their website for more information:


For me Slimbridge is a rather special place, though, as it was probably the first place I saw the magnificence of a swan's take-off, which is something that remains with you, etched on the mind like a tableau of porcelain ducks over a tiled fireplace......

Take off!

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