After drawing a major blank, I was left with the inconceivable task of spotting six new species in the remaining two days of the year to get to two-hundred. Three a day? Not a chance. If I’m honest, I was a bit gutted – I had got so close, but had finally realised that it probably wasn’t going to happen. My previous six new birds had taken six-weeks to find.
In the scheme of things, it really didn’t matter. The year had already been a brilliant mix of exploration, learning and dodgy bird puns. That said, I had really thought I might just be able to do it. To finish the year off by getting to an arbitrary figure would have been a perfect end to a great adventure, but I had accepted that it simply wasn’t to be…
Tuesday 30th December: T-minus 2 days and (still) 6 to go
When I had gone to bed, I had semi-planned on going to have a look at the WWT reserve at Slimbridge, but woke up with a bit of a ‘what’s the point?’ mentality. If I couldn’t reach my target, why bother?
I had a shower, ate some breakfast and grew the hell up! Chastising myself for almost giving up, I then got in the car and headed off to score me some bird action – Oo-er! (Obviously, using the phrase ‘score me some bird action’, I hadn’t grown up too much… perhaps just enough to get over myself).
The reserve at Slimbridge was the first opened by the WWT (Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) and sits on the Severn Estuary between Gloucester and Bristol. It houses an array of exotic waterfowl, kept on site by a simple process of wing-clipping – a painless procedure that usually involves the trimming of the primary flight feathers (primaries) to prevent the birds from flying off. The reserve is also a popular place for free and unclipped birds to visit. These were obviously the ones I was most interested in.
It is a tricky task to work out which birds are pets and which are just visiting. By my reckoning, if a bird was flying around, it was countable for my list and if it didn’t have a leg ring, I could also add it. If it had been logged on the reserve’s sightings board, I could be confident that it was wild.
Simple… Sort of.
However, in the case of ducks, for example, they spend a lot of time floating around on water – simultaneously not flying and not showing off any leg jewellery. In these situations, how could I possibly tell if they were ‘real’ birds? As a case in point, I had seen a Lesser Scaup (an American diving duck that is a very infrequent visitor to the UK) within thirty-seconds of exiting the visitor centre. Was it here of its own volition? Or was it essentially an exhibit? Just as I was wrestling with the ‘tickability’ of the bird, I saw another… and another. That emphatically answered my question – To see one in the UK was a possibility, but three: not a chance.
I had a feeling that today would be a challenge.
My plan was to wander around the non-zoo parts of the reserve first (the hides over-looking the Severn Estuary) – This would hopefully increase my chances of wild sightings, avoid the captive birds and therefore make my task a bit more straightforward.
And it worked…
A couple of hides in and I saw a group of geese towards the back of a field. Closer inspection revealed them to be European White-Fronted Geese – Bird number one-hundred and ninety-five for the year.
Was the quest for two-hundred back on?
In another hide, I overheard someone talking about a wild Ruddy Shelduck that had been hanging around with its captive compatriots in the Asia Zone (perhaps the one that didn’t make the final cut on the Crystal Maze due to Richard O’Brien’s frequently inappropriate Chinese impersonations) [This, of course, is untrue]. I figured it was a great opportunity to see something else that wasn’t on the list, so I sped off to see what I could find.
At the Asia Zone (Mystery, two minutes, automatic lock-in), I counted eight Ruddy Shelducks. I just needed to systematically work through them to find one with wings intact and no leg ring. After a while, I had seen that seven had rings (this task was helped by the fact that the water had frozen, meaning no appendages could be hidden below the surface), so this meant the eighth bird must be the wild one. However, it was standing on one leg on the far side of the pond. I couldn’t allow myself to add it to my list until I could see for sure that the hidden leg un-ringed.
You wouldn’t believe how long a duck can stand on half its legs for!
The wait was worth it… Bird number one-hundred and ninety-six.
A trip to the hide at the South Lake revealed a number of people excitingly staring at somewhat unremarkable brown duck in the distance. It turned out to be a female Ferruginous Duck (one-hundred and ninety-seven), which would usually spend its days in southern Europe or Asia. Ferruginous is another word for describing something of iron-rust colour, so I was ignorantly doing it a disservice by calling it brown.
As the light began to fail, I popped back into one of the hides near the visitor centre. Excitingly, there were three Common Cranes on the far side of the water. This trio are a third of a group of nine from the Great Crane Project that have made the Slimbridge area their home. The project has sought to help reintroduce the species back into the wild in the UK, by releasing a number in Somerset. Additionally, there are three small populations of Cranes in Lakenheath, the Norfolk Broads and in Humberside.
To prove their liberty, the Cranes took flight and disappeared into the sunset.
What a superb end to a great day!
I was now up to one-hundred and ninety-eight for the year. Could I really get to two-hundred?
The final day of 2014 was shaping up to be a nail-biter… For me, anyway.