A winter bird spectacular at Slimbridge

WWT - wild bird feed on Swan Lake copyright WWT
Wild bird feed on Swan Lake, The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, Slimbridge. Photo by Nick Cottrell

The stars of the winter show in the Stroud area, and also around Gloucestershire, are definitely wildfowl. Whilst we assume that birds head south for warmer climes to avoid the coldest season of our year, as they leave there’s a huge group of birds who come here on their summer holiday. Swans, geese and ducks do fly south for the winter, but they end up around the UK having left the artic circle and the adjoining harsh, frozen lands such as the tundra of northern Russia, Greenland and Iceland.  As you might imagine, these places freeze solid during our winter making food impossible to find so wildfowl migrate here where it’s relatively balmy by comparison. These are birds that need to be by water so they head for our shores and coast plus inland lakes and marshes.

The best place near Stroud to enjoy this winter spectacle is The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s centre at Slimbridge. Created by Sir Peter Scott precisely because it was a magnet for these colourful and fascinating birds, Slimbridge provides a home to thousands of wild geese and ducks plus a few hundred Bewick Swans from late October to the beginning of March each year. The latter are an uncommon visitor in the UK with only a few places where you can see them in any numbers. Their overall numbers globally are rapidly declining, which is causing alarm as scientists try to discover the reason behind this.

Truly the best way to appreciate the array of different colours, shapes, sizes and general cuteness of wildfowl is to watch one of the feeding sessions on Slimbridge’s Swan Lake.  At 4pm each afternoon during winter, the wardens wheel out a barrow-load of grain and, walking around the edges of the lake, throw out the food to the assembled throng of ducks, geese and swans which are eagerly waiting in this avian equivalent of a top-notch restaurant.  The best bit is that you can watch this remarkable sight from the comfort of the heated Peng Observatory. The whole side overlooking the lake is made of glass, providing a stunning close-up view as the birds gather around the warden’s barrow just a few feet in front of you.

As they scatter the food, the wardens provide a commentary of fascinating facts about the birds, their lives, and can even identify individual Bewick Swans that are there thanks to the scientists’ discovery that each has its own unique bill marking. When a swan returns to the centre, it’s given a name and its life is recorded year after year creating a type of swan soap opera! Around this time of year, the sight looks even more stunning as the sun sets in the background and floodlights switch on to light up the birds’ frenzied feeding, fights and cheeky sneeking of grain from the barrow when the warden isn’t looking!

When to visit: the feeds take place each afternoon at 4pm from 3rd November to 18th February. This event is ‘free’ as it’s included in the entrance fee. On selected dates in December, January and February, WWT is offering the opportunity to watch a special floodlit feed on Swan Lake, followed by a two-course meal so both birds and visitors get fed! Click here for details. During the weekend of 30th Dec – 1st Jan, there’s a special Winter Spectacle Weekend with activities taking place to celebrate the fact that winter is the best time to visit Slimbridge to see wildfowl. Click here for details.

Location: Swan Lake at The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust’s Slimbridge Centre.

How much time to allow: The feed takes about 15 minutes but allow half an hour as the birds stay a long time after the food has been put out and it’s fun as well as relaxing to keep watching this real-life natural history programme. Arrive in plenty of time before the feed so you can get a good seat.

Terrain: All of the centre is on flat ground with facilities for disabled people including mobility scooters and audio guides for hire, plus some signs in the grounds are also in braille.

Facilities: The Peng Observatory is heated and has plenty of seating. The centre includes a restaurant offering plenty of refreshments and food from snacks to hot meals. Plus there are toilets, play areas and activities for children, binocular hire, mobility scooter hire, art exhibitions – it’s the ideal day out!

Directions: you have to drive through Slimbridge village until the road goes over a canal and then comes to an end at the visitor centre. The turn-off for the village is on the A38 near Cambridge inbetween junction 13 (heading south on M5) and junction 14 (heading north on M5).

Wildlife-friendly gift ideas for Christmas

Snow and baubles - Trixieliko

You might be more organised than me in the whole matter of Christmas present buying (I only let this annual festival of frenzy start to perculate into my brain on Stroud’s Goodwill Evening), but if you’re still searching for a present that’d be really valued by someone who’s keen on wildlife, I’ve put together some ideas in the selection below. I, personally, feel that ‘experiences’ or presents that last well beyond the festive season are a much nicer anyway, and the profits raised get ploughed back into helping protect our local wildlife. Continue reading “Wildlife-friendly gift ideas for Christmas”

A walk to Paradise and back!


So winter has finally started – at least according to the Met Office for whom the 1st December marks the beginning. For astronomers, we’re still autumn until the winter solistice (21st December) which seems a bit late to me. Whatever date you choose, I have to admit to being a bit disappointed with autumn this year. I’d been planning to post a series of blogs highlighting the best places and walks where you could appreciate the full majesty of the glorious seasonal colours. Instead, the trees seem to have gone from green to bare branches in almost one fell swoop. Yes, there has been a degree of colour change, but the usual yellows, reds and oranges have seemed muted. I feel you’ve cheated me, Mother Nature! I find these riotous colours are one of the autumnal delights tempering the thought of winter’s cold, short days. That, plus the wonderful bounty of berries and fruit, and the comforting chutney-making.

Continue reading “A walk to Paradise and back!”

The devil went down to Strawberry Banks

Strawberry Banks Comma + db scabious - Caroline Aistrop

Hurrah! Another opportunity to write about one of my favourite places in Stroud district. I visited Strawberry Banks a couple of days ago and discovered a profusion of devil’s bit scabious creating a purple tapestry weaving through the grassland of this beautiful, hidden valley. Its delicate, lilac pom-pom flower nods on the top of stem about 2-2.5 feet high, and is primly arranged in pairs (though my wildlife-watching companions disagreed and said it was blue. I often have this argument with people ‘It’s purple’, ‘No, it’s blue’, ‘Don’t be daft, it’s obviously purple’…anyone else go through this when discussing flower-colour? No? Must be my funny eyesight, then. I magnanimously agreed on lilac).

Continue reading “The devil went down to Strawberry Banks”

Special bird festival at Slimbridge this weekend

Photo - waders bar-tailed godwits (WWT website)

This coming weekend sees the first Wader Festival take place – no, it’s not the annual gathering of wellie manufacturers but a celebration of a special type of bird called a wader which flocks to this area every spring and autumn. On Saturday and Sunday, The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust’s centre at Slimbridge will be busy with all sorts of activities celebrating the birds which collectively form a group that is found all over the world apart from Antartica; in both freshwater and salt-water, in bogs, marshes, coasts, ponds, and whose members are as diverse from flamingos and cranes to godwits and egrets.

Continue reading “Special bird festival at Slimbridge this weekend”

Summer fun in the countryside for kids

Photo - 2 girls walking along footpath backview Pezibear

In the past, I’ve lead walks helping families get closer to wildlife and be inspired by the outdoors. A regular comment that took me aback was parents admitting that these events helped them discover places where they could take their children in the future. Even though they really wanted their children to spend time amongst nature, they didn’t know where to go ‘out there’ in the countryside.

So, here are five places I’d recommend where families can have some fun, fresh air and do a bit of wildlife watching (and all for free):

Continue reading “Summer fun in the countryside for kids”

Glow, baby, Glow!

Bisley Rd cemetery chapel + gravestones _ C Aistrop

July is the time of year when nature offers the opportunity to visit a fairy grotto or two. If you know where to go, you can take a stroll at dusk surrounded by lots of tiny, neon green lights that appear as if by magic. I’m talking about the glow-worm, that fascinating creature which seems to belong in fairy tales: invisible during the day yet once darkness falls, it decorates a field with nature’s version of fairy lights.

Continue reading “Glow, baby, Glow!”

Pyramidals: the last of the orchid spectaculars

Pyramidal orchids Rudge Hill - C Aistrop

The Stroud district is sooo fortunate in having a wealth of different orchid species growing in lots of places around and about, and in having some that occur in great profusion. There are certain ones which are solitary souls, for example the frog orchid certainly doesn’t copy its namesake as a party animal, but others are real show-offs making everyone a winner in the game of ‘spot the orchid’. The end of June and beginning of July is the last time during the flowering season when you can enjoy one of these spectaculars as the pyramidal orchid livens up grasslands with splashes of its cerise pink flowers.

Continue reading “Pyramidals: the last of the orchid spectaculars”

Coaley Peak – meadows, marvellous views and possibly ice-cream, too.


View down Severn Vale from Coaley Peak - C Aistrop

When it’s a warm, sunny day at this time of year, one of my favourite places to go for a picnic and to enjoy being in the great outdoors is Coaley Peak viewpoint. The 180 degree view over the Severn Vale is stunning, there are plenty of interesting wild flowers to admire, lots of space for kids to run around and, if you’ve got young kids who are Harry Potter fans, you can entice them with the idea of visiting the Forbidden Forest, too. It’s also a place where people with restricted mobility, and possibly even those in wheelchairs, could enjoy being outdoors and seeing some wildlife. Add into this mix the ice-cream van that’s usually parked there at weekends during the summer and what else could you ask for?!

Continue reading “Coaley Peak – meadows, marvellous views and possibly ice-cream, too.”

Elderflower cordial: so easy to make! Here’s how…

Photo of Elderflower - Smoobs

Once the initial explosion of spring flowering has died back and the icing-like cover of white hawthorn flowers has melted from the hedgerows, the next bloom of colour appearing almost immediately afterwards is that of the elder tree. The flowerheads are so large, round and flat that they look like giant plates from nature’s best crockery set.  In reality, these white blooms are made up of thousands of tiny flowers and are a magnet for a whole host of insects gorging themselves on the nectar feast they provide.

Continue reading “Elderflower cordial: so easy to make! Here’s how…”