Being a romantic soul, I travelled up to Nottingham to be with my wife – who is currently touring in a play – for Valentine’s day. As she had to rehearse in the day, I spent Saturday birding in the North Midlands.
Local bird alerts informed me that a Glossy Ibis was nearby. About 20 birds visit the UK each year (a marked increase on a decade ago or more) and I believe the British Birds Rarities Committee has removed it from its list because it is understood to be undergoing an expansion of range since it settled and bred in Spain about 20 years ago.
Whatever the official status, for me this is a rare bird, although one I have seen before (a pair visited Dungeness about four years ago while I was there). Somebody had kindly posted a map of the field it had been seen in, in a little village called Gonalston:
I hoped I might see other birders who could pin-point the bird for me, but arrived early and alone. I had barely had time to raise my binoculars to my face over the hedge when I saw it. Whilst a hedge and birding manners prevented from getting close enough to get a good shot, I at least managed to record my first Nottinghamshire twitch (going in search of specific bird and finding it – in case you aren’t familiar with the proper definition of the over-used term) in pixels:
It was feeding busily until other birders arrived. It then decided to tuck its distinctive beak into its wing and sleep (“Early bird” I was thinking smugly).
I drove on for my second attempted twitch of the day. This time not such a rare species as the Glossy, but in many ways more special for me – as they were life firsts.
I drove to Besthorpe nature reserve towards Lincoln where I heard that two of our winter migrant swan species had been spotted a few days earlier.
Whooper and Bewick’s Swans migrate to the UK in their thousands, but tend to settle in only a few select areas. They are famous at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, where the late great Sir Peter Scott studied them.
DIGRESSION ALERT Sir Peter Scott is one of the greatest naturalists of the 20th Century (founder of both the WWF and WWT). My favourite, and poignant, story about his life actually concerned his more famous father, Captain Robert Scott (of the Antarctic): Captain Scott’s last letter to his wife (soon-to-be-widow) as he faced death in the tent with his fellow explorers in the Antarctic blizzard included a line about his son, the young Peter, who he knew he would never see again. It said, “make the boy interested in natural history if you can; it is better than games”. This wonderfully prescient or inspirational (depending on how you deem it influenced the outcome) comment became truer than he could have ever hoped.
I finished watching some noisy Redshank and a lone Oystercatcher – a far cry from the hundreds I saw the weekend before at Dungeness – and was deciding whether to turn left and walk around the reserve in a circle, or right and walk along the river Trent. As I looked right, I could see a flicker of white through a hedge that looked like a Swan, so I chose ‘right’.
That flicker of white was a Mute Swan – but there were almost 40 swans in the field by the great river:
There were Mute Swans spread out throughout the field, but in the middle, there was a tight bank of swans keeping to themselves. I admit to being really quite excited when I saw the distinctive yellow on the beaks of these swans. There were 16 Whooper Swans and 2 of the slightly smaller Bewicks:
If we look in more closely, you can see the triangular yellow markings of these Icelandic migrants – the nominate species of the great Cygnus genus no less:
From a distance I started carefully studying their faces as my hands almost froze to my binoculars (I left my gloves in London). Sir Peter Scott – an accomplished artist – kept notebooks with drawings of the facial markings of the swans at Slimbridge – which he also founded – and was able to identify individual birds from their particular marks. I was simply trying find a Swan with slightly less yellow on its face – quite hard as they were far away and often had their heads in the grass feeding.
I eventually found two of the Bewick’s Swans – which luckily chimed with what other birders had reported. There is currently an ornithological debate over whether Bewick’s Swans are sub-species of Tundra Swans or full species in their own right. Either way, I marvelled at how these similar looking swans – Whoopers and Bewick’s – migrated in from vastly different places (Iceland and Siberia respectively) and came together in the same little field in Nottinghamshire alongside our native Mutes. Forgive the the dreadful quality, but I wanted to show that I really did manage to single out a Bewick’s:Three successful twitches in a row! Could I make it four?
I drove back to Nottingham to the wrong side of Holme Pierrepont waterspouts centre. What do I mean by the ‘wrong side’? Well, I mean this:
There is a large lake known as the A52 Pit – because it sits next to the dual carriageway of the A52 – which is the private property of a farmer who does not like birders tramping over his land. As you may be able to see on the photo above, birders dangerously pull over on the dual carriageway to peer from a distance at the water. I parked more safely further away and then walked next to the hurtling traffic for a mile or so.
Not exactly the wilderness or pastoral idyll that many have in mind when they think of the quaint hobby of birding. So why were we doing this? The large and inaccessable lake had hundreds of Wigeon on it. But amongst the Wigeon, was a rare vagrant – an American Wigeon. I was too far away to properly see without a scope, but I did manage to pick out Smew and Goldeneye and took this landscape as a memento for ‘dipping’ one out of a wonderful four:
Throughout the day, I added six species to my UK year list taking me to 95 for the year so far:
- Whooper Swan
- Bewick’s Swan
- Glossy Ibis
- Grey Wagtail