Down to the Eiders

The weather forecast/guess for day #2 of our escape from Halloween had been questionable. We were hoping to make our inaugural visit to the WWT site at Slimbridge as long as storm and tempest didn’t stop us. The forecast still seemed questionable, a band of rain sweeping across the country, when we awoke in our Tetbury hotel after a long night in a bed whose mattress I can only liken to a rice pudding. Nonetheless, we breakfasted, spotted that life remained dry, and made the 30-minute, 15-mile/24-kilometre journey further west.

This was our first visit to any WWT site and it turned out to be something quite different from my expectations. What I thought it would be was open expanses of wild wetlands with swarms of migrating water birds doing their natural thing. That kind of habitat was certainly there in abundance, overlooked by a large collection of hides some of which were inhabited by the expected collections of twitchers with spotting scopes but there was another dimension to Slimbridge which I really did not expect. So unexpected was it that it took me a while fully to realize what it actually was. A pedestrian visitor route was marked out around a series of ponds containing water birds. The first of these, just beyond the reception, contained Bewick’s Swans (Cygnus columbianus) and Tufted Ducks (Aythya fuligula), amongst others. Slimbridge is well known for being visited by Bewick’s.  On the second pond was a gang of Common Eiders (Somateria mollissima) which I assumed had flown in.

J01_4505 Bewicks SwanContinuing our exploratory wander, we began seeing birds from Africa, Asia and South America. These were not migrants but were effectively a collection of captive specimens of various waterfowl from various parts of the planet. When they exercised their wings, we could see that they were clipped. This was essentially a waterfowl zoo collection.. This was an aspect that I had most certainly not expected. Visitors could buy packets of grain with which to feed the birds and it was a good facility for attracting families, thus generating an income for more of the year and from a wider audience than the die-hard twitcher. It was very well done, we thought, and found it quite enjoyable. Since I find it nigh on impossible to sit in a hide with a spotting scope for hours on end, I number myself amongst those that it does a better job of attracting. Had I looked at the map, I’d have twigged sooner – the area was called World Wetlands.

J01_4545 Common EiderThe return route took us back to the Eiders. I had begun the day thinking that Eiders were rather dull, black and white birds with a rather unattractive wedge-shaped head. This impression was based purely on books, though, since I’d never actually seen one in the flesh/feather. Certainly the males are largely black and white but in their breeding plumage they have a beautifully suffused pastel pink blush to their chests and a delicate but obvious pale green nape. They look quite stunning. The black cap extends below the eye and tends to conceal it, making them quite difficult to photograph. The eye really does need that magic catch-light.

J01_4517 Common Eider displayThe Eiders have another endearing quality. The male’s’ mating call to the female is a cooing sound, first rising then falling. It’s a sort of, “oo–OO-oo” sound. It has been more amusingly described as resembling one of late, great Frankie Howerd’s trademark noises, along the lines of “oo-er-missus”. The call’s delivery – the Eider’s that is, not Frankie Hawerd’s – is accompanied by a backward toss of the head. This is a shot of the male in mid-coo to a prospective mate. [Here is the RSPB Eider page with an audio of the call.]

Our visit to Slimbridge catapulted the enchanting Common Eider into my list of favourites.

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