Cranes, large white wetland birds, standing 1.3 metres tall with flamboyant tail-feathers that bob about as they graze, were hunted to extinction in Britain four hundred years ago. But last weekend we went to visit a now thriving resident population at the Slimbridge Wetland Centre on the Severn Estuary near Bristol. It was a magical and uplifting experience, and it turned out that the Cranes shared the billing with an astonishing cast of other beautiful wildfowl.
Many of the Cranes at Slimbridge are the progeny of a breeding programme at the wetland centre a decade ago that saw ninety-three German Crane eggs successfully hatched and hand-reared. The plan was for the birds to make their home on the Somerset broads, where they were released in 2010, but a handful of the brood found their way back to Slimbridge and decided to stay. They like undisturbed wetlands, so we could see why they came back.
Although we never got closer than a few hundred metres away Cranes are easy to spot, being very large birds, and through binoculars they have an unmistakable red skull-cap that sets off their black and white heads and otherwise pure white plumage. For most of our visit three of the birds were unhurriedly grazing on the wetlands, although we also got to see a few in the air too, flying with languid grace.
Unsurprisingly, given that they have so recently returned to these isles, markontour’s mostly second-hand British bird guides make no mention of Cranes. But a reference in the BBC’s ‘Planet Earth’ coffee table tome led us to a David Attenborough narration describing how huge flocks of Cranes make an annual migration over the Himalayas. Unable to soar the five miles above Everest, generations-old knowledge leads them to the Kali Gandaki valley, said to be the deepest gorge in the world and a route also used for centuries by the people of Nepal and Tibet. After battling high winds, Planet Earth filmed a huge V-formation of Cranes successfully navigating their way through our world’s highest peaks.
I gained a second insight into the spectacle of a squadron of cranes in flight while finishing Richard Powers’ incredible new novel, ‘Bewilderment’. Robbie, the eco-sensitive young protagonist, and his father observe a family of sandhill cranes flying south towards winter quarters:
”They drew near along a liquid thread. Their wings, gray shawls trimmed in black, arched and fell. The long dark tips of their primary feathers flexed like spectral fingers. They flew outstretched, an arrow from beak to claws. And in the middle, between the slender necks and legs, cam a bulge of body that seemed too bulky to get airborne, even with all the pumping of those great wings.
The sound came again, and Robbie grabbed my arm. First one, then another, then all three birds unspooled a chilling chord. They came so close we could see the splashes of red across the bulbs of their heads.
The day was punctuated by large groups of birds suddenly taking to the air with some urgency, which is likely to have been because a raptor was spotted in flight nearby. A Marsh Harrier had visited earlier in the morning and the wildfowl were still jumpy when we arrived. Interestingly, we saw ducks and geese feeding comfortably for some hours while a Peregrine Falcon perched nearby on a log and then a fence. The wildfowl’s apparent sanguinity was not, however, a sign that the Peregrine is not a predator, but simply that a raptor on the ground is not a threat – it’s the ones above them in the air they need to watch out for.
The lone Spoonbill, a tall white waterbird we saw on the banks of a marsh stream, was an extraordinary thing and its beak is perfectly named. They used to breed in East Anglia in Medieval times, but faded from recorded history from the 1700s and were still listed as only rare visitor to Britain in my 1980s bird guide, but we learned that they are now regulars at Slimbridge. Spoonbills have a very sensitive bill, which they use to sweep the shallow waters, snapping shut if an insect, crustacean or tiny fish makes the mistake of wandering in. We were apparently lucky to see their bill, because Spoonbills are lazy things and spend much time asleep with their eponymous appendage tucked away in their feathers.
The most beautiful bird of the day, in my view, boasts three names – Peewit (from its calling sound), Green Plover (its family-name, I assume), and Lapwing. We were offered two explanations for the latter nomenclature: either that it has a rounded-edge to its wings that is clearly visible in flight, or that its defence mechanism when its eggs or young are under threat is to fake a broken wing and wander off, confusing predators into thinking it makes easy prey and diverting them from the nest. In any case, I loved the Lapwings’ iridescent green plumage, black and white crown and foppish crest.
Our visit was indelibly boosted by two wonderful volunteer guides, who spent a combined three and a half hours teaching us about wading birds, ducks, geese and swans, walking us around the various bird hides. Every now and again we seemed to bump into Martin, the deputy warden, who invariably had a new sighting to report, as did a bevy of regulars who seemed happy to let new devotees peer through their scopes.
The Cranes have made themselves residents, but many of the other birds we saw are winter visitors fleeing colder weather in Siberia and Greenland in particular. What follows is really just a reminder for myself and Ms Markontour of what we saw, but they fell into broadly three categories of wild-fowl:
Wildfowl that feed primarily by grazing, or simply up-ending – pitching their head below water while their back-side protrudes above the surface. Those we saw today included the Mallard, Pintail (which has a spiky, slightly forked tail, a bit like that of a swallow), and the impeccably turned out Teal (which gave its name to the shade of green it sports on its half-crescent eye patch). The Mallard, by the way, turns out to be one of the only ducks that actually quacks..
Wildfowl that likes the water to be a little deeper and dive down, submerging their whole body, to forage for food. Our guide today described these birds as generally squat and tubby shaped, with their legs set back, and boasting huge lung capacity. Today we saw: Pochard and little Tufted Ducks, who seemed to disappear for ages when they dive.
The Wigeon, we were promised, are classic grazers and right on cue twenty or so of them bundled out of the shallows to scratch around in the grass, steadily edging away from the water. A few minutes later they must have realised they’d gone too far for safety and all waddled back. Canada Geese were, of course, also grazing in numbers, along with a gaggle of various others of their family, including some White Fronted Geese, from both Siberia and Greenland, and Ross’s Goose, also resplendent in white.
There were then several wildfowl whom I don’t know how to categorise:
- I would guess from their behaviour that the ubiquitous Moorhen is a dabbler, but what I certainly do remember is that they hatch several broods each season, with the eldest helping out in the rearing their younger brethren, much the same as the House Martins who come to live under our eaves in the spring.
- A bunch of Bewick’s Swans, with their yellow upper bill, and a bevvy of ducks around them – apparently because the swans use their long necks to reach the lake bed, disturbing all sorts of edibles that the ducks can then feed on.
- Avocets, medium sized black and white birds, with long upturned bills, who sleep standing on one leg in the water to minimise heat loss.
- Heavily camouflaged Snipe, competing with Bitterns for fading into reeds and which we would never have picked out without a guide. We didn’t experience it, but were reliably informed that a flock of Snipes hum as they are descending to their feeding grounds, as a result of their tail feathers vibrating in the breeze.`
- The glorious-sounding Golden Plover we only saw from a distance great enough to disguise their colours even at binocular magnification. Next time.
- We learned that the smartly turned out Shelduck, a white bird with a green head and tasteful brown stripe across its upper chest, sometimes makes its nest in old rabbit warrens. Some of our guide books list it as a goose, but that can’t be right can it it’s called the Shelduck..