Little Bustard – Slimbridge WWT, Gloucestershire

On Friday afternoon Nicola and Adam came down to spend the weekend with us. On Friday evening we cooked a Vegan Curry and spent some time catching up with episodes of The Mighty Boosh. On the Saturday we had a posh lunch in a Vegan Café and then went into town where Nicola and Adam both bought climbing equipment (carabiner clips and specialist shoes). We spent the evening re-watching Game of Thrones Season One while eating Pizza (is there a better combination?) On the Sunday we visited Calshot Activities Centre to show them the excellent Climbing Wall and while we were there a Mega Alert reported that a Little Bustard had been found at Slimbridge! This would be a new species for me.

I decided that I would head to Slimbridge on Monday sometime. Martin McGill had found the bird on the sea wall early on the Sunday morning before it flew towards Middle Point on the Dumbles which is an area of tall grasses which borders the southern edge of the Severn Estuary. During the afternoon it was flushed by a crow and flew some distance before returning to land in the long grass again. Other than that it appeared to be settled and was reported throughout the afternoon and evening and as Slimbridge closes at 4:30pm special out of hours access was arranged with groups being escorted to the Dumbles every hour up until 9pm.

I texted Dad to see if he needed Little Bustard in the UK as I couldn’t remember if he had seen the bird which spent six days in the Sopley area on the Hampshire and Dorset Border. I can’t remember why I didn’t go for that bird but two thousand birders did go and they spent New Years Day 1988 trudging around in the torrential rain and almost all of them failed to see it, my Dad included. Dad couldn’t go on Monday morning as he was taking Mum to have a 24 hour Blood Pressure belt fitted.

I couldn’t decide whether I should head to Slimbridge early on the Monday morning or wait for positive news before travelling. The first news usually comes out via Bird Guides at anything from 6:30am to 7am and so I could set my alarm for 6:15am and be ready to leave. If the bird wasn’t found immediately, however, then I might end up travelling in rush hour traffic and so I decided to risk it and head there early. The Slimbridge Sightings twitter feed reported that the first groups would be escorted at 7:30am and so I decided to aim to get there for 7am and I set my alarm for 5am. As usual, with the prospect of an early start, I didn’t sleep well and was up before the alarm. At just after 6am I was within an hour of Slimbridge and Martin McGill tweeted to say that he had just relocated the bustard, he had been looking since 5am. I made it in good time and pulled into the car park at just after 7am.

I noticed Paul Marshall at the other side of the car park and he came over and chatted, he then escorted the first group of 25 of us and by 7:45am we were stood on the top of the embankment overlooking the Dumbles. Martin had relocated the bird had 6am but then had to leave to open up various parts of the reserve. He had returned again and was waiting for us when we arrived but there was almost an hour when he wasn’t on site and he didn’t have the bird in view when we arrived. It was therefore an anxious start.

The Dumbles is a 150 yard wide expanse of grass before the main estuary and the grass is easily deep enough to completely hide a Little Bustard. It was pretty impressive that Martin had managed to find the bird again on his own this morning. A second group of 25 birders arrived 30 minutes later and they must have been worried that we hadn’t found the bird yet.

Within 15 minutes, however, people were calling out directions. When all 50 birders are strung out in a line it is difficult to hear the directions and “in line with the post behind the thistle patch” is useful providing you know which thistle patch and post they mean and in line with the post for someone 20 yards to your left means it will be well to the left of the post for you (if you knew which post they meant that is).

I decided to trot along the line to try and work out where they meant. The birder who had the bird couldn’t give very useful directions and didn’t know which post or thistles were in his scope view. I offered to look in his scope to help but he looked irritated and wouldn’t let me. I jogged back to my scope and then noticed Paul Marshall calling out directions and so I jogged back to him and had a brief view in his scope.

Its dark head was showing above the grass and when the grass blew in the breeze I could also see its jet black neck collar which was bordered by a white band both above and below the collar and the white line was itself bordered by a further thin black line. Only adult males at least 2 years old show this striking black neck pattern.

Over the next few hours I had views every 20 minutes or so, occasionally it wouldn’t move at all between sightings, presumably just sitting or resting and on other occasions it would move 50 yards or more while out of view. On one occasion the bustard jumped into the air to catch an insect, perhaps a grasshopper on the top of a tall grass stem and it repeated this a couple of times allowing us to see all of its neck and part of the body.

At 11:15am Martin and Margaret arrived and they had very brief long range views. Along with a thousand or more other birders he had dipped the 1988 Hampshire bird. At 12pm and having seen the bird on 10 or more occasions I decided that I would head home. I’m not sure that views got any better for subsequent birders. This was certainly a very difficult bird to get good views of and it will become even harder to find when the number of eyes looking for it reduce over time. Paul mentioned that around 500 birders had visited on the Sunday and I think around another 500 more birders made the trip on the Monday. By the time the bird left around 2,000 birders had visited.

Little Bustard breed in grassland areas with a resident population in Spain, with migratory populations in France, Ukraine, southern parts of Russia and Kazakhstan although the population has undergone a marked decline recently and as a result since 1996 there has been only one twitchable bird in the UK (East Yorkshire 1st Jan 2015). It was therefore not surprising that so many people had come to see this bird. The occurrence coincided with an influx of Painted Lady butterflies and very hot weather in France and Spain.

Little Bustard takes my British List to 445 and my year list to 226.

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