Hedgecourt Nature Reserve – Battle of the Swans

It was a cold and windy day in Sussex so we decided to drive to Hedgecourt instead of walking. We were walking along the path in the direction of the reeds, when I saw an avian form fly swiftly from behind the twisting trees. A raptor gliding effortlessly over the dark menacing water, a contrast to the billowing clouds above. A Buzzard – a crafty hunter, built for ruling the air. The flock of Black-Headed Gulls took to the grey skies as they spotted the Buzzard, aware of every movement from the bird. The Buzzard didn’t seem intent on killing at that time, so it just soared placidly onwards, until it was hidden once again by the tall trees.

I only just noticed that I had developed some stalkers, two Canada Geese hung behind while two dominant and quite noticeably large Mute Swans led the small procession.

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DSCN2800I knew what they wanted. Bread. Though they weren’t in luck. The swans were the former parents of a brood of a grand total of seven cygnets, though now they only had four. Four was still impressive though, their rivals at the other side of the lake only had one. They were the rightful owners of this part of the lake, they were stronger, healthier and generally better at standing up for their patch. Their part of the lake was the largest, the other end of the lake was split into two parts, one for the two parents of a lonely single cygnet and the other for a bachelor cob without a mate or family.

It was then I noticed that the 2 parents of the single cygnet had started to swim towards this end of the lake. I had heard that they often fight, so I was braced for the action. I looked back down to the resident two swans (which were only a few feet away) and I noticed that the cob had peeled off in the direction of the intruders. He looked like he was going to face the two swans on his own even though he was outnumbered. He had probably done it before so I was sure that he was going to win, although I couldn’t be certain. They were getting closer and closer, though the female intruder had split from the male so it was cob on cob. Suddenly it happened, the resident male, took off and flew with strong wingbeats in the direction of the attacker.

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The intruder then started flying too, and there was a frenzy of water as two of the largest flying birds fought in the air. The commotion made the resident’s four cygnets take flight and one of my following Canada geese to fly away as well.

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The resident mute swan then appeared to land on top of the intruder, causing lots of thrashing, until the intruder speedily retreated. The dominant pair then slowly met up and performed a victory ritual on the serene waters of Hedgecourt.

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Finally, I saw a Pochard on the lake behind the Private Waters sign, the first I’ve seen on this lake. It then flew off.

Slimbridge WWT

I was lucky enough to spend the weekend of the 26th and 27th October at Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetland Trust.
This post is split over both the days:
Day 1:
Even before I arrived at Slimbridge and I was still on the road, I saw some brilliant birds. I spotted 2 Red Kites soaring above the motorway and 2 Buzzards eating worms in a newly ploughed field. A magnificent male Common Pheasant was perched on a log in a roadside spinney and a couple of cormorants fished while perched on a buoy.
When we finally got to Slimbridge after a 2 hour 44 minute journey, I was extremely excited to get to the WWT centre. I didn’t expect it, but the first bird I saw there was one of the birds we came to see, a migratory Bewick’s Swan! I only glimpsed its head through a tiny window on my way to the café (it was nearly lunch), but the size and the yellow based beak was enough to make an identification.

Bewick's Swan

Bewick’s Swan


The view from the lunch room was excellent, it looked straight over the picturesque area for greater Flamingos.
Flamingo

Flamingo


When I had finished my lunch, there was a chance to look and photograph the Bewick’s swans. I got a shock when I got outside, because there in front of me was an expanse of water (bisected by a walkway) of a couple of hundred Mute Swans, Bewick’s Swans, Black-headed gulls, Tufted Ducks, Shelduck, Coots, Moorhens and mallards. A bulk of that number were swans, but the commonest waterfowl was easily the tufted ducks. When we arrived at the opposite end of the waterfowl bonanza, we walked through a place called the conservation area, although we didn’t see more than mallards and moorhens. Walking along that path did however, make me think that some birds were already getting ready for the breeding season, as I noticed some fighting woodpigeons and mallards, one woodpigeon I think took a very tactical approach!
Woodpigeons

Woodpigeons

Moorhens

Moorhens


We then came to a lake that was filled with mostly captive foreign ducks, but I did get some close up shots of a Pochard.
Pochard

Pochard


It was nearing 2pm so we had to start to head back for a decoy demonstration. For the demonstration, a bunch of people met up in the visitor centre, where a man led us to a hide called the decoy hide that looked out over a lake full of mallards, Shovelers and Teal. The man talked to us a bit about using the decoy trap, then we had a demonstration of the ancient art. It was quite a big lake and around the lake there were four tunnels made of strong iron and a nylon net. It would work like this:
There are about a dozen fences made of reed (that doesn’t let any light through) that are 2 metres long slanting towards the end of the tunnel (the tunnel would get smaller and smaller until it was duck sized). A dog that looked like a fox would then weave in and out of the fences making the ducks go into the end of the tunnel. They would go into the tunnel because they think it is safer if they don’t let the predator out of sight, so they follow it. The man would then be waiting at the end of the tunnel with a crate to trap the ducks. This trap used to be for getting ducks to eat, but now it is used for ringing the ducks. He finished up with seven ducks, 2 in one crate, 5 in the other. We were lucky because we were able to watch the ringing, measuring and releasing of the ducks! First he would check if the duck had a ring, if not he would ring it, if it did he would go straight onto measuring it to see how it was doing. First he would measure the wing, then the head.
Measuring the wing

Measuring the wing


When he finished with a duck he would then release it and at the very end I was even allowed to release a duck!
The tunnel

The tunnel


Day 2:
Today was going to be a full day at Slimbridge, but our trip was cut short due to the hurricane called St Jude that was forecast to hit our area at about midnight. That only left us from 9:30 to midday to see all the species we wanted to see. We decided to head straight to the hides and we were so quick that we were the first visitors out there! The first hide we went to was the kingfisher hide that (due to the tides) overlooked a flooded field and a bank that kingfishers nest in. In the field there was a wide variety of birds, such as Rook, Barnacle Geese, Canada Geese, Ruff, Lapwings, Pochard, Wigeon and a Cormorant that flew over. There was a medium sized flock of Starlings in the neighbouring trees, as were Jackdaws. In the lake in front of the kingfisher bank, there were mallards, Coots, Shovelers and one Gadwall. In the next hide there was roughly the same layout as the kingfisher hide, except there was no kingfisher nest bank. We saw some Teal dabbling in a tyre track that was filled with water and a family of mergansers were fishing at the back of the lake near to the estuary. The best bird there was clearly the Common Crane (also called the Eurasian Crane) that I spotted flying over the estuary. Only one of those cranes is actually wild, the others are ringed and part of a special breeding programme.
The last hide we went to was the Zeiss hide, where the Bittern and the Baird’s Sandpiper were seen the other day. Close to that hide there is brilliant habitat for Bitterns, but all that we could see there today was a feeding Shoveler and a Moorhen. Further out however, we could see tonnes of ducks and waders with the help of a terrific telescope. Among the Wigeon, I could see some Black Tailed Godwits and Greenshank, and also my first views of Redshank, Dunlin, Golden Plover and my favourite, a Spotted Redshank! In the estuary we saw the Common Cranes again, feeding with a group of Great Black Backed Gulls. We also saw a Snipe fly overhead and a Peregrine Falcon keeping a look out on a fence post. One of the most interesting sights of they day though, was when a man drove behind all the waterfowl in a Quad bike and made them all fly up into the air! Before we knew it though it was time to leave, but I can say that it was a truly memorable experience!
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