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.
Although wading birds can be seen during autumn all over the district and Gloucestershire where there’s a significant body of water or boggy bit, Slimbridge is the perfect place to see them when you want a bit of creature comfort to accompany your wildlife watching. Not just because they flock there in hundreds and thousands, or that because the birdwatching hides are placed at just the right spots to offer the best views, or the comfortable restaurant and toilet facilities, but also because of the experts who are on hand during weekends to help you learn which type of wader is which (if you’re not an expert).
Unfortunately, we don’t get any waders as colourful as flamingos (though Slimbridge’s bird collection is the only place in the UK where all six species of flamingo can be seen), but the waders that flock here are small and perfectly formed! During the summer months, many of the waders do sport plummage that are wonderful shades of chestnut and all sorts of dramatic patterns. By the time they reach the Stroud district and Slimbridge in the autumn, they’ve donned a more tasteful hue with a subtle style that blends in better with their background and makes them less conspicuous to predators. However, the tall and elegant crowned cranes are a spectacular sight and the handful that you may see at Slimbridge are ones which were bred at Slimbridge and released as part of a special programme to re-introduce them into the wild.
The waders most commonly found migrating at this time of year through Slimbridge include Ruff, black-tailed Godwit, snipe, green sandpiper, redshank, lapwing, ringed plover (one of my favourites), dunlin, bitterns, and the new kid on the block, the little egret. The latter only moved here from the continent in the 1980s and 90s, and started breeding in 1996. By 2006, it had become an established resident with over 500 pairs in the UK.
Granted to the untrained eye, many of the wader species look very similar (and I have to admit that learning to tell them apart is an ongoing exercise for me), when you get to know them, you see that they have different characteristics. For example, I’ve given the black-tailed godwit the nickname of the ‘sewing machine bird’ as when it’s looking for worms and crustaceans to eat, it pushes its long beak into and out of the mud so rapidly that it looks like the needle of a sewing machine to me! So, waders in the UK are birds which may not have the dazzling looks of tropical birds, but they’re well worth getting to know on a personal level. And when you do finally spot the intensely shy bittern emerging briefly from the reeds, the sense of satisfaction is tremendous.
When to visit: Slimbridge’s Wader Festival is on this Saturday (9th) and Sunday (10th), check their website for times and details of the many activities going on http://www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/slimbridge/whats-on/2017/09/09/severn-wader-festival/. Waders leave their summer breeding ground and pass through this area from late July through to October.
Location: Slimbridge is off the A38 between junctions 13 and 14, signposted by brown tourist direction signs.
How much time to allow: as much as you want! You could easily stay all day and I’d suggest two hours at the least.
Terrain: as Slimbridge is in the floodplain of the Severn, the ground is flat. Tarmac-surfaced paths enable wheelchairs, prams and people with mobility problems to easily get around. A sloping ramp leads from the car park to the visitor centre. Audio-guides help people with visual impairments get around.
Facilities: all you could want for a day out! Loads of stuff for kids to do, there’ll be special activities going on as part of the festival, there’s a shop, restaurant, toilets (in the grounds as well as in the visitor centre)…and lots more.
Directions: take the M5 and leave at either junction 13 or 14, or follow the A38 from Gloucester or Bristol, or the A4179 from Stroud. Once you reach the A38, there are brown tourist signs pointing the way. http://www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/slimbridge/plan-your-visit/