Great Bustard – Toyd Down, Hampshire

Last Saturday I had planned to visit Martin Down for some chalk downland specialists (Grey Partridge, Red-legged Partridge, Corn Bunting and Yellowhammer) but my plans had changed when a Hoopoe turned up near the Fawley Refinery. Almost a week later and I decided that I would head to the chalk again but as a Great Bustard was continuing to show well at nearby Toyd Down I decided to head there instead of Martin Down. It was just as likely that I would see my four year targets at Toyd Down and it would be great to see one of the newly released Great Bustards in the UK!

The Great Bustard is found across Europe, as far south as Spain and as far north as the Russian steppes.  The species became extinct in the UK in 1832 and in 1998 the Great Bustard Group was set up to reintroduce the species where it was formerly very much part of British wildlife until extinction due to collectors and changes in agriculture. There still remains plenty of habitat suitable for Great Bustards in the UK, in particular the rolling downland and arable fields of Wiltshire, Hampshire and Dorset. However, their population decline and fragmentation means recolonisation will not occur without a reintroduction programme.

Based on a feasibility study, in 2003, DEFRA issued a 10-year trial-licence to release Great Bustards in the UK. Releases have taken place annually since 2004. Originally Great Bustards were sourced from the population in the Russian Federation although a subsequent genetic study showed that Spanish birds were genetically closest to the original UK population and so from 2013 onwards introductions have come from Spain.

Eggs are collected in Spain (where there are 30,000 breeding birds) early in the season to encourage the females to lay a second clutch. The eggs are transported to Madrid Zoo where incubation is continued until they are moved to Birdworld, a specialist bird park in Farnham, Surrey. Here the team continue the incubation and oversee the hatching of the eggs.

The day old chicks are then taken to the GBG Project Site in Wiltshire and reared by the Great Bustard Group. The chicks need to be bill fed with a puppet and exercised as they grow so the rearing team wear dehumanisation suits to stop the chicks becoming attached to humans.

In the first year of using Spanish birds 33 birds were released and a spring census showed a survival rate of over 50% through the first winter. This percentage is much better than was achieved when using chicks imported from Russia, and is significantly better than the 22% which may be expected in a natural wild population.

The Toyd Down bird was part of the 2019 release which took the UK population to 100 birds. It is now believed that the population is self-sustaining and so 2019 is the last year that releases are planned.

The Toyd Down Great Bustard was first seen on the 4th January and had subsequently taken up residence in fields just north of Knap Barrow Farm. I parked next to the farm which stands on a hill just above Toyd Down and once I was loaded up with telescope, tripod, binoculars and sketch bag I scanned briefly and very quickly saw the bustard in a beet field just beyond a section which had been fenced off for sheep.

On several occasions over the last month observers had reported that the bustard spent some of its time sitting low to the ground and despite it being the heaviest flying bird in the world it could fully disappear in the beet field and so I was pleased that I had seen it so quickly.

I walked down the gentle slope and after 500 yards or so I reached a gate which provided a good viewpoint over the fields to the north west. Thankfully the bustard was still up and it continued to show well feeding methodically in the beet field with its bill often raised giving it a majestic look. You tend to think of Great Bustards on grassy plains but for much of the year arable fields are their first choice.

Its neck was fairly robust, the head and upper neck a pale bluish-grey, a chestnut patch was developing on the lower neck and its tail was cocked on occasions. All these features confirming that this was a young male. He was wearing a red ring on his right leg which shows that he was released in 2019 having been hatched from an egg collected in Castilla Y Leon in May 2019. First year birds often disperse quite widely, whereas those hatched in the wild tend to stay close to home. The GBG expect and hope that this bird will find its way back to Salisbury Plain in the next month or two and join the rest of the bustards.

As I was finishing my sketches I glanced back through my scope to see that it had disappeared and there was no sign whichever way I panned. It seems incredible that a bird this big could fully disappear into a crop that appeared to be no more than shin high.

While we were scanning to try and find the low lying bustard we did come across a single Red-legged Partridge and I then began to hear Grey Partridges calling and as this was the trickiest of the target birds I made an effort to try and track them down. They were calling on the opposite side of the track, on the rolling downland to the east. I walked beyond the end of the hedge to get better views of the downs and luckily the partridges were displaying on top of the ridge. Depending on which way they ran they either disappeared completely or came back fully into view. There were around six birds and as part of their display they dashed around after each other rather comically.

All the time I was hearing Corn Bunting song and several birds came fairly close, typically perching up nicely and a flock of 20 Yellowhammer gathered towards the top of a distant hedge.

I walked back down to the bottom of the slope and had good telescope views of the Grey Partridges and I also noted that the Great Bustard had appeared again.

David Waters founder member of the Great Bustard Group says that “having seen the success of the Wiltshire project there’s a lot of interest to try and get great bustards back in old haunts like Dorset, Norfolk and Yorkshire and of course we’ll continue looking after the Wiltshire population where we’d like to see it reach 200 and 300 and keep going…”

What a fantastic project!

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – Acres Down, New Forest – 7th February 2020

On the way home from the Great Bustard I popped into Acres Down to look for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker but again there was no sign. I also ventured out on to the open heath and managed to find a lovely pair of Woodlarks.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – Acres Down, New Forest – 19th February 2020

This was my third visit to Acres Down in February and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was again my main target. There were plenty of other year targets available for Dad and so I picked him up at 7am. We walked around the deciduous parts of the wood for a few hours and enjoyed excellent telescope views of Crossbill, Hawfinch and Brambling but the woodpecker was again elusive.

Sunrise was overcast, it felt cold and rain was threatening and so overall it still felt a little wintery and without the woodpeckers calling or drumming it does feel like a needle in a haystack. Last year it was mid-April when I heard and then saw a drumming male in the clearing just down from the car park. Just before we headed back to the car we made a brief detour out onto the heath and we saw the pair of Woodlark I had seen earlier in the month. The rain started and so we headed back to the car.

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – Denny Wood, New Forest – 19th February 2020

I dropped Dad back home and then decided to spend another couple of hours looking for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in Denny Wood.

I had seen a calling female on the 14th March last year and with my GPS I found the same group of trees. I gradually moved around the area and came across several tit flocks but didn’t hear any calling or drumming from either woodpecker species and again the woodland still felt a little wintery.  

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