Amid the mêlée

In autumn and winter huge numbers of birds gather together at WWT Martin Mere ready for feeding time. When the warden scatters seed on the ground, the great rush and natural spectacle begins. Particularly prominent are the shelducks, greylag geese, mallards and Icelandic whooper swans. But there are quite a few species there in the mêlée. The challenge is to make any sense of it all photographically.

Here are just a few individuals I managed to isolate with a reasonable shot, albeit in rather poor light.


I loved watching these beautiful avocets, with their upturned beaks, at WWT Slimbridge the other day. This group tended to move together, creating constantly changing striking patterns, such as that above.

Avocets represent another UK bird conservation success story. These waders were on the verge of extinction in 19th century UK, as the wetlands that formed their habitat had mostly been drained. Since WW2 they have recovered significantly, much helped by the conservation efforts of organisations such as RSPB and WWT. Indeed this attractive bird was adopted as an emblem by the RSPB.


There are literally thousands of birds around at winter feeding time at WWT Martin Mere. On our recent visit, among the larger ducks, geese and swans there appeared a number of these much smaller waders – ruffs. They seemed rather diffident, as most waited on an island bank for the larger birds to feed before creeping in to find some leftover seeds. The odd one joined in the mêlée, disappearing in a sea of duck, goose and swan legs.

By the time they got close enough to photograph with my Panasonic Lumix TZ80 the light was not good, so my shots are not too sharp.


Surprisingly, the male ruff is a startlingly attractive bird in summer plumage, with a highly colourful ruff around the neck. I was once so surprised to come across one a few feet away from me at an RSPB reserve, that I simply forgot about the camera easily to hand.

These ruffs were probably winter visitors. The RSPB suggests that the UK’s summer breeding population is very small.


wigeon pair
Wigeon pair

The wigeon is another dabbling duck. According to the RSPB, some breed in the UK, but there are many more winter visitors. We were lucky to see a fair number at WWT Martin Mere at end October, the attraction probably being that winter feeding had begun.

A web browse shows wigeon to be more colourful in summer, but these are still attractive birds.

wigeon 2

Teal dabblers

This common teal was taking advantage of the start of the winter feeding regime at WWT Martin Mere at the end of October.


Teal are the smallest of the dabbling ducks, which may dabble on the water or ‘upend’ to get at things below (as opposed to divers). According to WWT Slimbridge, “Dabbling ducks legs are further central than other types of duck enabling them to walk well on land and graze. Dabbling ducks tend to take flight when spooked or on the move and are able to take flight straight from the water, unlike divers which have to run across the water to gain momentum.”

Some teal are resident in the UK, and many over-winter here, which this one might be is not clear to me.

This bird is of course the origin of the name of the colour teal.


One of the UK’s spectacular natural sights is the autumn murmuration (gathering) of huge flocks of starlings preparing to roost as night begins to fall.

murmuration 1We received a treat at the end of October when we encountered one at WWT Martin Mere, while we were actually waiting to see the pink footed geese coming in at dusk. This was at a relatively early stage. More and more groups of starlings joined in, and the gathering went on for more than half an hour.Read More »


WWT Martin Mere in Lancashire makes it easy to take photos of various birds attracted to the ready availability of food. The migratory goldeneye is not usually present in England in the summer. I don’t know if this one nursed an injury. It certainly struggled to get a share of food against a gang of bigger and stronger mallards.


Summer colouring is rather drab compared to the resplendent male plumage of the winter (see goldeneye). But how those eyes stand out!


The bird called shelduck in UK is more accurately called the common shelduck, and occasionally males may be called sheldrakes. We see them in their hundreds during winter visits to WWT Martin Mere in Lancashire, and also on the local lakes in Cheshire.

shelduck_profileThis is a largish bird and actually looks a bit like a goose. In fact it seems that it lies somewhere between duck and goose.

What I can say, by direct observation, is that they are fearless in that they will be the birds feeding closest to the viewing panes at Martin Mere winter feeding time. Yet they are easily spooked, creating a spectular display as large numbers of these colourful birds suddenly arise as one and take off. Hunger soon wins and they gradually creep back in to reestablish their pole feeding position.

Some stay in the UK to breed in summer, but many more are winter visitors.

Shelducks are found across the world in various guises, hence the need for the prefix ‘common’ to distinguish this particular variant.



Seen on a recent visit to WWT Martin Mere, the pintail is a winter visitor in most parts of the UK. The pointed tail makes recognition easy, even for me. Size is a bit larger than a mallard.

The featured image looked like it would be superb on a beautifully sunny afternoon, low sun, but of course the sun was in the wrong place, so you can’t see the eye.

pintail-and-shelduckBetter luck with this shot including a nearby shelduck, but then the pintail is a bit bleached with the strength of the sun.

Disgracefully, the pintail can be shot in UK in the winter, despite Amber conservation status. It is claimed that numbers hold up despite this. Sometimes I despair of some of my human fellows.

Pink footed migration

One of the marvels of autumn is the great bird migrations, some of which we can see in the UK. We were lucky enough to go to WWT Martin Mere in Lancashire a couple of weeks ago for a late evening opening to see thousands of migrating pink footed geese coming in for the night. We spent a happy couple of hours in bird hides, as the light gradually faded, watching skein after skein of geese, some going in different directions, come in to land or splash, until lake and banks were covered.



The most easily visible geese were the greylags that are at Martin Mere all year round.

Pink footed

The migrating pink footed geese were more difficult to see close up as they keep their distance. These are darker than the greylags, but easily confused as both have pink feet! These geese use Martin Mere as a staging post and move further south after a few weeks.

It’s not just about the geese. In the quiet of evening we also saw hares, a kingfisher, a marsh harrier, a murmuration of starlings, many lapwings, shelducks and others. Martin Mere also has enclosures containing birds from many parts of the world, and otters.

Martin Mere is also really child oriented, with things to do and a really good children’s play area. Granddaughter loves going there so that she can feed the great variety of ducks from the supplied bags of seed (small fee).

WWT Martin Mere is well deserving of support for all the conservation work they do, not only in UK but across the world – birds do not know of coountry boundaries.

Lead by idiots

Lead is a poison. It interferes with a variety of body processes and is toxic to many organs and tissues… It interferes with the development of the nervous system and is therefore particularly toxic to the young (Wikipedia). This applies to animals, birds and humans – hence over many years we have moved away from allowing lead in water, petrol, paint, etc.

In 1983 a UK Royal Commission on environmental pollution recommended the phasing out of lead shot for shooting game because of the effects on wildlife and humans. This has never been fully acted upon. Non-toxic shot has been used in Denmark since 1996.

The Wildlife and Wetland Trust estimates that

  • 50,000-100,000 wildfowl die each winter in the UK from lead poisoning,
  • 6,000 tons of lead ammunition are deposited in the UK countryside every year,
  • 1 in 4 deaths of Bewick’s swans are due to lead poisoning.

A WWT briefing reports research in the UK as showing that a high proportion of game sold for human consumption had lead concentrations exceeding the European Union Maximum Levels. The shooters are actually poisoning themselves and their families!

Apparently, the UK Food Standards Agency considers it acceptable to ingest lead from game birds, but not more than once a week. Really? And it appears to be considered acceptable to mass poison wildlife.

This seems crazy – a disaster for wildlife conservation and a disaster for human health.

What can you do? Well at least join and support the efforts of the Wildlife and Wetland Trust.

Featured image of Bewick’s Swan courtesy of Adrian Pingstone and Wikimedia Commons