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).