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On Thursday 16th January 2014 I was privileged to get an insider’s view into the conservation efforts at one of my favourite birding locations in the country; Slimbridge Wetlands Reserve as part of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.
Having stayed in The Tudor Arms pub and lodge in Slimbridge Village on Wednesday night, I was able to be up early to meet reserve warden James Lees who had kindly agreed to allow me to photograph him on his daily routine for two days. It was a wonderful experience to wander down the tranquil country lane with geese honking over my head as the sun started to rise. As I drew closer to the reserve entrance, flocks of several thousand lapwing rose suddenly into the air in a cloud storm that glistened in the early golden light. I would later hear this spectacle that continued throughout most of the day, described by James Lees on BBC Gloucestershire Radio as an 'Avian Firework'.
James kindly took me under his wing and used not only his highly accomplished knowledge of the wildlife and the lands he cares for, but also his fantastic skills as a wildlife photographer to help me visualise my final photographs.
The first job of the day was to walk around each hide on the reserve and get a rough head count of each species. These numbers can then be tweeted straight away for visitors to know what’s around, and then when back at the office, posted on the website and printed off for the public daily sightings book. It was staggering how much I saw in just one morning; at least three thousand Lapwing and a couple of thousand Golden Plover put on an incredible display whenever a Peregrine would fly over, flushing the whole field of its wading community – of which there is a record number this year. Not only was I able to witness wildlife spectacles but I had an incredible chance to learn about how the mild winter conditions of this year have lead to the lowest number of Bewick’s Swans since the 60’s and yet the largest number of waders – which is also partly thanks to the recent floods that help by bringing all the insects and grubs closer to the surface.
Once back at the office I was introduced to a few other members of staff including Volunteers, who are highly important in helping out with the great work that the WWT wardens do. (You can apply here to volunteer!) One of James’s jobs around this time of year is to start ringing birds with special BTO (British Trust for ornithology) rings so as to track the bird’s movements throughout the year and beyond. Measurements of the bird’s wings and head were also taken and the wings examined so as to determine the sex and age of the bird – the wing structure, development of plumage and also plumage patterns can help determine sex and growth. This information is recorded and sent off to be processed at the London Natural History Museum which also allows other countries to track these birds efficiently. If the bird is already ringed when caught, the same measurements are taken and the ring number recorded so that the wardens will be able to find out where that bird was first ringed – be it here or elsewhere in the world.
Some of the birds are still caught using traditional methods such as a Duck Decoy. James will send his dog Millie through a series of screens so she will appear at different points along the Duck Decoy structure. This will attract the attention of the ducks in the pond at the entrance of the trap - ducks are naturally curious and will follow the 'predator' at a distance through the netting till they are trapped at the smallest end. (See Image Below)
The wardens have a very varied and hands on job on the wetland reserve which also involves managing the land as part of the overall conservation for wildlife. This could just be as simple as clearing overgrown foliage so that the public have a good view of all the surrounding lakes and land or more purposely done in the example of the willow trees. These trees have grown around wetlands for hundreds of years, and every now and then they need to be trimmed down. This not only allows the trimmed tree to become a nesting habitat for small garden birds but also stops them growing too large and splitting. I got the opportunity to witness some of this variety of the job in the afternoon of the first day as James had to cut down some small trees that were obscuring the view to part of the reserve from the Holden Tower. It was a great experience as I got to get involved and help put all the cuttings into neat piles amongst the reeds. These piles would then become perfect habitats for small mammals so nothing is ever wasted. The day ended with a commentated swan talk to the public that the wardens share between themselves daily. This gives the public the opportunity to watch the wardens feeding the birds on the Rushy Pen from the Peng Observatory and also learn all about the Bewick’s Swans. These stunning swans first took a liking to Slimbridge in 1964, where Peter Scott took a big interest in them and began sketching their bill patterns, noticing that every swan was unique - The same process is done by experts even today.
It was a huge pleasure to gain an insider’s view of how the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust work for the conservation of wetland wildlife and how the wardens strive everyday to care for, protect and learn about each individual species. It is clear why WWT Slimbridge is an absolute haven for birds all year round and if you haven’t visited, then I highly recommend looking up where your nearest WWT wetlands centre is and get out there and support our wildlife. Without these wetland reserves, we wouldn't have the number of species that we do and in reference to our recent flooding – these reserves are there to help take in rain water and disperse it slowly so that it doesn't all run into areas of civilisation.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to James Lees for aiding me in this project and to all the Reserve Warden Staff and Volunteers.
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