Peregrines, Wild Geese and Avocets
Chapter eight - Peregrine and Geese, Slimbridge
THE PEREGRINE - October 1966
I was alone in the hide at last; in a stone tower on the sea-wall. I had a good look round the horizon through the narrow, boarded slit. The view was magnificent, with sunlight pouring down on to the broad waters of the Severn, and a haze of rain clouds on the opposite shore - rendering parts half invisible as they blew across. I had been to Slimbridge to visit the Wildfowl Trust on several occasions, but it was some years since I had last been out to the Dumbles to see the wild geese on their natural feeding grounds; a chance to have another visit was not to be ignored. It was towards the end of October, and the day was sunny, but intensely cold with in a keen, biting wind. 1t was really too early to see many geese, but this had the advantage that few people were bothering to go out to the hides. In fact, I managed to have an hour and a half on my own, which gave me the opportunity to nave a look at anything that took my eye, and to lay out sketch-pads and pencils untidily all round the interior of the draughty tower. I had already been round the collection in the pens, both for the sheer enjoyment of doing so, and to refresh my mind on the identification points of the various geese. As usual, my favourite was Rushy Pen, where the variety of birds is staggering, and the layout seems to make them appear as if they are in natural surroundings. The brilliant colours astound the eye with their combinations, and the air is filled with the whistles of the various teal and wigeon, set against a background of geese baying, and the haunting notes of the wild swans - a riot of colour, movement, sunlight and shadow.
After my pilgrimage round the collection, I was met at the entrance hall by a warden, and taken for a long tramp across the fields, until we reached the tower on the sea-wall. This had been ingeniously built up on the base of an old wartime pill-box, and contained three floors. The top two are provided with extremely powerful binoculars, and command a splendid view of field and estuary. The warden kindly explained the likely feeding grounds and pointed out the various features, then I was on my own. To either side, and in front for some distance, ran a rough, green meadow. This was part of the famous Dumbles, which has served as the winter quarters for generations of wild geese. After heavy winter rains, the Dumbles, and other fields behind the sea wall, partially flood and long runnels of water flow up the natural contours. All this leads to large populations of visiting ducks, as well as geese; making it a fascinating place for the ornithologist, or for the casual visitor who appreciates their grace and colour.
From this view-point, the Dumbles apparently ended in a steep drop or scarp face. All that can be seen is the flat meadow running out to a grassy edge. Beyond this, much of the river and sandbanks is set at a lower level. Behind the sea wall, the river lay, broad, swirling and powerful. The tide was three-quarters up and the innumerable creeks and channels were full of rich muddy water, but still showed banks and bars standing proud. In the creeks, the shapes of hundreds of duck could be seen feeding and asleep; while undefined ripples of movement denoted the presence of thousands of restless waders.
Beyond the last sand bank, the waters changed colour, not to a clear sea-hue, but rather a less-rich mud colour: while the whorls and swirls on the surface, visible at even this distance, indicated the power of the current in this river of mighty tides. Through the binoculars, the far shore could be seen in the intervals between the rainstorms. It was pleasant countryside, with gentle hills, well wooded, sweeping steeply into the Severn. On the edge of the Dumbles, a great stillness prevailed, not a bird moved on its expanse, and the only movement was that of the wind among the stumpy tussocks of rough grass. Out beyond them the odd flash of white, followed by a dark cloud, and then another longer flash of white, showed a vast flock of waders twisting and wheeling over the rapidly covering mud-banks. Over this distance, not a sound reached the tower. I felt I was suspended in a vacuum, far from man or animal. The initial look over, I sat behind the huge Naval binoculars and swept carefully over every inch of ground. One complete sweep showed nothing, and 1 was just beginning to despair, when during the course of another look I caught a movement from something on a stump right in front of the tower, but at the extreme edge of the field overlooking the expanse of the river. I turned the binoculars up to maximum power - x 50 – and looked very carefully again. Another movement, and I saw it was a large bird. Yet another, this time of the head, and I was looking at a Peregrine falcon. She – for to judge by the size it must have been a female - sat with her back to me and her head half-turned to the right, so had a glimpse of the powerful hooked bill and a flash of white neck below the dark moustache. For some while she sat motionless agian, then turned a little, so I had a three quarter back view of her. What an impression of power she gave! I watched her closely for about half an hour and marvelled at her beauty and at the only part-hidden strength and ferocity. Her shoulders were very broad, and the feathers reflected the light back as the muscles rippled beneath: she gave none of the normal bird- impression of being a mass of feathers on a light body. Rather, it felt that the feathers were tightly compressed on a chunky, solid, well-proportioned underlay of flesh; like a boxer stripped for his bout, with muscles rippling beneath the arc lights. Her feathers were dark slate blue, with lighter edges and dark tips, while her wing-tips extended to the very edge of the tail - like a tern. I had not realised what truly long-winged birds they are. The dark head and moustache contrasted most handsomely with the small amount of white, while the side of one of her barred trousers was just visible. She sat there unmoving except for her head, which was constantly shifting, almost imperceptibly. I imagined her cold, dark eye, watching everything that came into sight - probably far beyond even the range of those binoculars. She must have fed recently, and been digesting, as she made no move to chase any of the waders. Indeed, later when the geese arrived, they landed but eighty yards away and she apparently paid no attention at all. To my eye, these flat and muddy parts did not seem at all the traditional hunting ground of the Peregrine, which has always been associated in my mind with sea cliffs, but I have since learned that she, or her forebears, have been hunting the New Grounds for at least the last twenty years.
A faint baying in the distance, made me leave the Peregrine and sweep the sky with the binoculars. There they were, about forty grey geese sweeping in a long curve over the dappled waters, on over the ducks on the bank, and finally dropping onto the field out on the edge of the scarp, away to my left. They stood there for a few seconds with dark necks held stiffly in the air, then slowly relaxed with heads down to feed among the grasses. One of them remained on alert the whole time, standing erect while its fellows bent forward, with sinuous necks, grazing as they moved slowly up the field. It was the long-expected flock of Whitefronts – though it took me some while to identify them to my own satisfaction. The white patch behind the bill was not all that visible, the final identification coming from the heavy barring on the chests of the older birds. They were very restive - every so often the whole flock would stop and peer around with their heads up, then settle down to feeding for a while. At last, the uneasiness became too much, and they were off. The first flight was a short one which brought them back to the same spot; but soon fear overcame greed again - perhaps it was the presence of the Peregrine - and they were off in a long sweep over the estuary. I was lucky, I managed to keep the big binoculars on them during the whole flight, which must have lasted several minutes. I felt I was part of the flock, which was heightened by the fact that for most of the time they were flying below my height. I had the impression I was watching them from a place within the flight, or from an accompanying aeroplane. They swept purposefully up river and up wind, with wings moving fast and powerfully; then slowly came round in a long and graceful curve until they were all moving back down-wind. Their whole method of flight changed, and the strange sense of being part of the flock heightened the impression that I was watching a slow-motion film. My field of view in the binoculars exactly held the flock and most of the background was blurred. The birds flew with slow half wing-beats, all in perfect unison, like a flock of waders. It was a most impressive sight. At the end of the slow motion phase they were over the Dumbles again and, at some unseen signal, their wings became curved down, like a series of sickle moons, and they turned into the wind. Some then slid in almost level with the grass before giving a couple of lazy flaps to land; while others started back-fanning their wings from about twenty feet or so up, and slowly descended like a series of helicopters. Even so, they appeared to land with quite a thump, and it became obvious why they have such thick, sturdy legs. They landed considerably nearer this time, and incidentally nearer the Peregrine, so I had a much better view of them feeding; being able to appreciate even more the grace of their movements and subtle colouring.
As more people arrived, the whole flock took to the air, probably surfeited with grass after a day's grazing, and swept out low over the river to land on one of the still exposed mud-banks. Here they all settled down to sleep with heads tucked into their back feathers, but still leaving one of their number on guard. During this final flight, the Peregrine must have taken off, as there was just an empty stump when I looked. I was disappointed, as I had hoped to see her in flight. Still, it is not often that a chance arises to see Peregrine and geese sitting within fifty yards of each other, and I wandered back across the fields with much to remember. To most people Slimbridge represents geese and ducks in their hundreds; for me it is memorable for a wild Peregrine falcon keeping watch over the broad reaches of the Severn on this bitterly cold day.
BEYOND THE SEAWALL - Later that same day
After lunch, I met a Trust gamekeeper whose job was to keep out vermin and predators but also seemed to do innumerable other outside jobs. He was from Northumberland, full of enthusiasm for the Trust, this countryside and its wild birds. We got chatting and he offered to take me out to the sea-wall to another point where he had watched many birds in the early morning, with waders only a few feet away. It was a couple of fields further on and, tramping across, we met Mrs Scott, who readily gave permission for me to go on and visit the wall. It was flat, featureless country, but with plenty of forage for the hordes of geese that feed here regularly during the winter. Long runnels of water showed how floods built up locally and kept the grass green and fresh throughout the year. The sun shone with that clear, colourless and cold light so often found at the end of October. Behind lay a long tramp down the gentle slopes, through the edges of the wood to the flat, low-lying fields which were bounded at their end by the sea-wall. I was breathless but the long trudge, boots heavy with mud, had warmed me up, for it was a sharply cold day, with a light east wind cutting into the face. I stopped for a moment and had a look round. The rains of the last couple of days had not yet dried in the ground, and we had to make several detours round long stretches of water, which lay in the natural hollows. Thin sheets of this water lay in front, with tussock and hillock showing its true, but deceptive, depth. The sea-wall showed ahead, through it’s half-covering of hedge and scrub, and still hid the view of the estuary; all that could be seen was land-water, grey-green grass, and wisps of high-flying cloud in the washed out blue of the sky. Walking briskly on, we disturbed a snipe feeding by one of the runnels. It jinked and twisted away from me, landed and disappeared from view immediately, as it had been hidden by its camouflage before I had disturbed it. Nearer the sea-wall, some of the exciting sounds of the estuary were heard faintly, beyond the stone and hedging. A burst of liquid notes, and an answering double trill, were Redshank and Curlew somewhere on the bank. They were not alarm notes - just the contented chatter of birds at their ease. The only other sign that we were near the sea, was the sight of periodic eruptions of clouds of gulls high over the seawall. I say eruptions with intent; for there would be near silence at one moment, the next would bring a cacophony of screams and mewings, and hundreds of white shapes would pour upwards, before settling once more. At last I was there. This was the spot which had been explained so carefully to me; where I would get the best and closest view of some favoured wader grounds.
I crawled up the seawall, near a small, twisted tree, and half lay, half sat, with just my head showing, hoping I was reasonably well hidden by a fringe of dead grasses. The effort was worth while. I seems I did not disturb anything, and had a clear and unobstructed view of mud-banks, and the waters of the Severn below and beyond. The water was calm and peaceful and, being half-tide, was broken by innumerable low-lying spits of mud and sand stretching out almost as far as the eye could see. Beyond the wall, mud fell away from the base, then rose again into a long bank. Silhouetted against the waters, standing on the top of the bank, were hundreds of sleeping birds. At first 1 did not recognise them, then realised they were all Curlew. Rank after rank sat there, all pointing in one direction, with all with their heads sunk into their shoulders. They paid no attention to me whatsoever, which is most unusual, for Curlew are the wariest of birds. To the left, the bank sloped down to some very wet, sticky-looking mud, which in turn led out for at least eighty yards, edging a little creek some four feet wide, which swept out from behind the mud-bank and across the line of vision. Beyond the creek, further flats extended for hundreds of yards out into the estuary. All this was bare, featureless ooze, rich in worms and crustaceans while, to my extreme left, the sea-marshes started, silvery grey-green in the sun. In these marshes the odd wader would fly from one creeklet to another, accompanied by bursts of liquid whistling: one Redshank would call to another from the unseen spaces beyond. In the liquid mud in front, half a dozen Shelduck fed, their vivid orange, black and white colouring outstanding against the grey-black surface. The mud was amazingly sticky and deep, just how much so was demonstrated by the Shelduck. Their webbed feet were sinking in several inches, and each step showed real effort in dragging themselves free from the suction. The Curlew in front, and to the right of me were outstandingly confiding. A few took off and circled round, undoubtedly having seen me, yet settled with no more than a quiet and liquid 'curle..w’, while none of their fellows even lifted their heads from their shoulders. One or two were even lying down, on the drier patches of the bank. I cannot ever recall having seen them doing this. As with most waders, they usually sleep standing, with one leg tucked up into their breast feathers. Out beyond the creek a number of Shelduck swam in the shallows and, yet further out, more duck lay in little packs as far as the eye could see. It was difficult to determine the colouring at this distance but, from the shape and the beautiful liquid double-whistles which floated over the water, I suspect that most, if not all, were Wigeon. Beyond the sea-wall, a small, very peaceful life existed, peculiarly its own.
With the evening slowly throwing its darkening folds over the bright water, and rendering the marshes and mud an indistinct mass, with no definite division between either, the only sharp contrast lay between land and water. Where this had been difficult to discern during the day, now the water reflected the remaining brightness in the sky; while a series of creeks and runnels showed silver against the dark background. Far out, duck were silhouetted against the silver, some asleep with head under wing, others dibbling in the mercury surface. Nearer, the Curlew had almost vanished into the protective colouring of the mud; only an occasional movement, or the flash of light on a long, curved beak, showed they were still there. The Shelduck had long since swept out across the estuary on piebald wings, and the only movement was that of the tide advancing over the flats. Walking back across the dim-lit fields, only the call of the Redshank, and the sudden alarm of some nervous Curlew, showed how close lay the dark expanses of marsh, and darkening waters of the estuary.
BIRDS OF THE SEVERN
Common snipe, Gallinago gallinago
Curlew, Numenius arquata
Peregrine falcon, Falco peregrinus
Redshank, Tringa totanus
Shelduck, Tadorna tadorna
Teal, Anas crecca
White-fronted goose, Anser albifrons
Wigeon, Anas penelope