Make the Boy Interested – a Blog about Slimbridge
I have been slow to do blogs about places because I can’t show them yet in their summer glory. But even in winter there is so much to Slimbridge, which I visit about twice a month, not only for its birds.
Of course I don’t mean the village of Slimbridge. I go through the village, over the Gloucester to Sharpness Canal to the headquarters of the Wetlands and Wildfowl Trust (WWT) overlooking the Severn estuary.
For this year and this blog I am also photographing its views, its buildings, its signs, its plants and flowers and its insects. But I can save a lot of these pictures for other blog posts. Here I will give an introduction and then just show my usual walk round the site – maybe leaving enticing hints about what else is there to be seen.
You can read a bit about Scott of the Antarctic and the WWT in  Statues, where you will see two statues now at Slimbridge.
Peter Markham Scott, whose godfather was JM Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, was only two when his father died. In his last letter home Captain Robert Falcon Scott advised his wife to “make the boy interested in natural history if you can; it is better than games.”
Peter grew up to be more than a naturalist. He took up ice-skating and sailing and won a bronze medal for sailing at the Berlin Olympics of 1936. He was an excellent painter although I think most of his water colour pictures seemed to involve ducks. I remember him from his television appearances – yes, about ducks.
WWT and Slimbridge
The Severn Wildfowl Trust was founded by Peter Scott at Slimbridge in the same month that I was born. (Come on, it’s an easy calculation. You know my birthday.)
It may be apocryphal but someone once told me about Peter Scott seeking to set up the original site at Slimbridge. When he was asked, “I suppose you want me to give you the land for nothing?” it is said that he answered, “No, I want you to spend a million pounds on developing it and then give it to me for nothing!”
There are now several other sites through the United Kingdom in the expanded and renamed WWT. Slimbridge continues to act as the headquarters of the organisation.
I see the WWT sites as fulfilling three major functions.
(i) They protect and conserve waterfowl, primarily by preserving wetland habitats. There have been major successes with birds such as the Nene (Hawaiian Goose) and Common Crane. They now also try to preserve other wildlife forms, not just birds.
(ii) They keep examples of waterfowl on their sites for the public to see in the same way as zoos.
(iii) To some extent they manage the land outside the public areas (although they don’t actually own the land around Slimbridge.) As well as encouraging waterfowl and wetland wildlife they also provide hides on the site for members to use when observing the external wildlife.
Sadly they also have to do other things as fundraising activities so that they can keep going. Slimbridge is expensive to visit but it’s much cheaper if you are a member. They have activities to encourage families and children to visit. I sort of accept that this pays for the other activities, which they couldn’t do without an income.
Before we take a walk round the site here is a map.
I will take you round my usual route.
Entrance and the Main Building
Slimbridge is the headquarters of the WWT and many staff work there so we start from a large car park often full. A ramp over a pond takes us to the entrance.
There is a large Visitor Centre, which I normally go straight through, stopping just to check the latest bird sightings.
The Peng Observatory and Rushy Pen
First on my list of stops is always the Peng Observatory. It’s the largest, warmest and most comfortable of the hides, overlooking the Rushy Pen with its two large lakes. From here you may see any of the waterfowl, especially visiting winter Bewick’s Swans and Pintail. It’s also good for Coot, Moorhen, Lapwing and other waders and Grey Wagtail. I also like it for Jackdaw often seen just by the windows.
The walk between the Peng and another small hide overlooking the Rushy Pen goes through a garden area that is good in summer for butterflies and other insects.
A short walk takes us on a bridge over a pond – the only place I have ever seen water vole.
From the Martin Smith Hide there are view over a large expanse of land with a small lake and running streams. This is often good for Crane, Buzzard and Sparrowhawk.
Willow Hide and Robbie Garnett
We go through a little tunnel and along a path to the next hides.
To the left is the Willow Hide, newest and smallest of the hides, close to a number of bird feeders that are well stocked in winter. Look here for Great and Blue Tits, other small passerines and maybe Water Rail if you are lucky.
To the right the Robbie Garnett is a long hide with its own lake and the wide expanse of land we met at the Martin Smith.
If we carry along the same path we come to another pair of hides. To the left we have the Knott Hide overlooking another small lake.
Perhaps the most important part of this view is the expanse of reeds behind the lake, often frequented in summer by Reed Warblers or Sedge Warblers. Some people can tell the difference between these birds from their songs but I am not one of those people.
The Stephen Kirk Hide give another view over the lake we saw from the Robbie Garnett.
As for all of these views what you see changes every week. The lakes and the field behind them may have thousands of waterfowl and waders, especially in winter.
Holden and Beyond
For serious birders the walk so far has been towards the Holden Tower, a large two-storey hide providing views over extensive fields and the Severn estuary.
The picture does not show much wildlife. (I didn’t pick the best day for my walk round.) But on a good day there might be tens of thousands of birds here – waterfowl, waders and gulls. You really need a telescope to pick them out.
To the right you also get a higher view of the expanse of wetlands you have seen already on the way here.
There is a path beyond the Holden, marked on the map as a Summer Walkway. This gives access as far as the Severn estuary – but the path is closed in the winter to protect the thousands of visiting swans, geese and ducks.
We retrace our steps almost as far as the Rushy Pen but turn right to pass the Pond Zone.
It would be cynical to describe this as a feature designed to attract families and funds but the pond-dipping activity is definitely aimed at children. To be fair, it is a wider aspect of wetland conservation and children come in groups from school for educational visits to Slimbridge. I may get some insect pictures from here in the summer.
We move on past a former garden area currently under reconstruction to the Duck Decoy.
I mention the Decoy Hide for completeness but it overlooks a lake never known for showing any significant birds. This hide has plastic glass windows that cannot be opened, always too dirty for good photography.
There is an actual ‘Decoy’ to the right, a complicated structure with the ability to funnel ducks to a small opening for capture. I have never seen it used!
Next you walk through the main display area of the site, past Welly Boot Land (See later) through another little area that in summer produces flowers attracting butterflies.
The South Lake Hide is a large solidly built hide, almost as comfortable as the Peng.
It actually overlooks two carefully designed lakes separated by a strip of land usually occupied by gulls and other birds.
To the left is a lake for waterfowl, often with many Greylag Geese, Tufted Duck and others.
Apart from the waterfowl and gulls you just about guarantee Cormorant here. There is generally a pair of Great Crested Grebe that may be difficult to spot and in summer visiting Common Tern nest on this lake.
To the right is a shallower lake, good for waders such as Black-tailed Godwit, Lapwing and Redshank.
We come back past Welly Boot Land again.
This is an excellent play area for children in the hot days of summer. Not unsurprisingly it closes in winter.
That’s the first part of my usual way round Slimbridge. It’s time to head back to the Visitor Centre passed the shop to the newly refurbished Café and Restaurant.
I am reserving my judgement on the restaurant because it is so new and I liked the old café. The new one doesn’t have the same ambience. But it does serve excellent food and drink. With my first coffee I either have a bacon sandwich for my breakfast or a nice home-made cake. (I come back later, generally for lunch.)
Through the Grounds
Then I’m off for my second trip round. It’s a longer walk but without so many visits. It’s another circular walk. (Sometimes I revisit the South Lake as it’s on the way, either outwards or inwards.) I go next through the main grounds where there are ducks and geese from around the World. I don’t stop to look at them.
Now that I am blogging I do look for plants, insects and all sorts of potential photographs and there is an expansive area of pampas grass.
Canoe and Play
After going through the main grounds we come to a children’s play area and another visitor attraction, the Canoe Safari.
There is a boardwalk out into the canoe safari lake, sometimes worth a look for birds. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone on a canoe.
There is another café by the play area but let’s keep going. Turn left through the woods.
This is the area where you will find the statue of a little boy almost hidden. It is also the location of a rookery at tree-top level. Perhaps this is one reason why we see the occasional Rook around the site after the duck food.
We come to the Zeiss Hide, another two-storey hide where we need a telescope to see distant waterfowl and waders.
It’s not normally this empty and birders there will point out the rarities. They will generally let you have a quick look through their telescopes as well.
As well as the distant views of a small river (and the even more distant Severn) there are reed beds nearby where you can see Reed Warblers in summer and, if you are very lucky and very patient, perhaps a Bittern in the winter.
The view from the left of the hide may also be the place for the Bittern.
For the Bittern you may want to try the view from the lower storey.
Kingfishers and Dragonflies
Next on our itinerary is a walk down the South Finger, a delightful tree-lined path that takes us away from the main site.
We pass two ponds where dragonflies can be found in summer.
If you come at the right time of year newly emerged dragonflies sit and pose on the wooden railings.
At the end of the South Finger we come to the Kingfisher Hide with its view over a carefully managed river bank.
It’s not guaranteed but in most years Kingfishers breed here and the hide gives excellent views – if you have the patience to wait. There may be visits every half hour or so with fish to feed the chicks.
If you look closely you will see seven or eight holes in the bank side as potential sites for this summer. I think the WWT staff have helped a bit. Expecting seven mating pairs is a bit optimistic.
On the way back through the site I usually visit the new Flamingo Hide.
There were no flamingos for my wintry visit but they are usually there in the summer. I go to look for the occasional Rook or gull after flamingo food!
We go a bit further on the optional extra loop to the main route round – to the Hogarth Hide.
There isn’t often much new to see here as it overlooks the South Lake again.
Sometimes it’s good for close views of Teal.
This blog is getting too long so I will leave out the trip back to the Visitor Centre. But we must go up the Sloane Tower. I always use the stairs.
From the top we have excellent views of the surrounding countryside.
With a bit of help identifying distant sights.
The Way Out
If you come out through the shop you get a different view of things. I couldn’t resist putting in this picture of the lake and ramp where we started.
And I can’t leave without sneaking in some more bird pictures.
I will, of course, do two or three blog posts about birds!