For 20 Years one of my hobbies has been bird watching. I've seen my share of rarities, but the rarest American birds I ever saw were on a stretch of marshy land in southern England. It was a June day. The soft spring air was filled with the comings and goings of ducks, and within easy distance of me were many of the species I had searched for in vain at home, including a flock of North American trumpeter swans which are the largest and rarest of all swans.
I was a little dazed, for within an area of about 20 acres sat, swam or flew the greatest collection of wild waterfowl ever assembled in one spot.
But possibly the strangest thing about it all was that I was standing in the heart of one of the busiest industrial areas in the world, almost within sight of the chimney smoke of the great port of Bristol and less than two hours' train ride from London. Jet planes screamed low overhead and traffic rumbled on the nearby highways, but the winged guests of the Severn Wildfowl Trust never turned a feather.
Slimbridge, the home of the Severn Wildfowl Trust, is on the shores of the busy Severn River in Gloucestershire. Through historic times this piece of soggy land, called The Dumbles, has been the private goose-hunting preserve of the Berkley family. Immense flocks of geese have wintered here for untold centuries. It was the presence of a flock of over 4,000 of them that led to the birth of what is undoubtedly the most unusual wildfowl sanctuary in existence anywhere, with 140 species of ducks, geese and swans from all over the world.
May 15, 1955
That was in 1946. Peter Scott, the famous painter of birds, had returned from the Royal Navy fired with a dream to establish a refuge for waterfowl on a brand-new plan, where scientists could work out research problems and at the same time the general public could have a chance to see the incredible diversity and beauty of the geese, ducks and swans of the world. Scott happened to be visiting Slim-bridge on that momentous winter day when the geese were milling over The Dumbles and saw at once that this was the perfect site for his experiment. In short order, he acquired a long-term lease on 25 acres of swampy reclaimed ground bordering a salt marsh.
He had the land, but little else. He had nothing but personal funds to begin his work. But he had the same kind of perseverance that called his father to the South Pole and into history; and he had the almost immediate support of the English people who are unique in the interest they take in wild beasts and birds. Some of Scott's friends began the immediate organization of a trust and the roster of those who joined included people like Field Marshal Viscount Alanbrooke, His Excellency Ahmed Abboud Pasha, a half dozen lords of the realm and, more important, several thousand ordinary citizens. The Trust took formal shape and Scott was named as Permanent Honorary Director. The list of supporters grew until it now includes Queen Elizabeth as patron.
All this was very wonderful, but the practical problems of establishing a new kind of bird sanctuary were immense. Scott knew what he wanted: the birds had to be almost as free as human visitors. The land was laid out into plots of varying size along a number of shallow drainage ditches running through the property. Each plot was surrounded by a low wire-mesh fence to keep out foxes and weasels, but there was no roof.
Then landscaping of these plots was begun. But the problem of money seemed insurmountable. Scott spent his own funds lavishly and earned further money by selling his paintings and lecturing (even now he draws no salary). Membership fees and donations had to make up the balance of the sum required, but these sources fell far short. Scott was not to be stopped. He managed to acquire the services of a gang of German prisoners awaiting repatriation and inspired them to the same kind of enthusiasm which motivated him.
Within a year the New Grounds (as the sanctuary area has been called since 1480) was fairly well in shape and already the birds had begun to take over the artificial ponds, swamps and streams.
Scott's plans for the future called for the establishment of a collection of every species of wild duck, goose and swan that he could lay hands on, all living in an environment as close to nature as possible. As fast as he could acquire birds he clipped their wings and released them in the proper pens. The birds were captive—for a while. But as their flight feathers grew out again, most of them were not reclipped.
Scott himself had doubts at first about the wisdom of giving these imported birds their freedom, but time has proved him right. So attractive is the sanctuary that very few of the birds have taken advantage of the dubious joys of freedom. There has only been one serious "break" and this was not because the birds concerned were anxious to escape. It happened in January of 1952 and was a cause cél√®bre throughout Britain for a week. A flock of greater snow geese was in the habit of making a morning exercise flight over the Severn River. On the morning of Jan. 30 a heavy fog swept in from the sea while the birds were aloft, and they got lost. Some found their way home the next day, in a state of near exhaustion, but the balance of the flock had vanished.
A country-wide search got under way at once. The British Broadcasting Corporation made three nationwide broadcasts. Bird watchers sallied out with binoculars to join the search. More than 200 telephone calls poured in to Slimbridge giving information.
The birds had evidently separated and landed wherever they happened to be when exhaustion overtook them. One was found wearily footing it across a farmer's field and was returned to Slimbridge. Other individuals were seen in remote parts of England. The surviving snow geese were so shaken by the experience of life in the raw that they gave up their morning flights entirely for a long time. Even now they seldom take the air except on clear days and for brief periods.
For a time there was some trouble with poachers, but Scott solved this problem neatly by offering everyone in Slimbridge parish special membership in the Trust. As a result, the poachers are now on the side of the geese. The same is not true of the RAF, which has several jet airfields in the area. A steady battle between Scott and the low-flying jet pilots came to a head in 1951 when the authorities decided that The Dumbles would make a fine bombing range. The enraged members of the Trust protested so violently that the RAF, seldom defeated in the air, had to accept defeat on the ground and withdraw.
TRAPPING WITH ROCKETS
One of the best ways of obtaining information about wild geese is by marking them. The Trust has an extensive bird-banding program under way, both in Slimbridge and in Iceland, nesting ground of many European geese. But since geese are hard birds to catch, Scott and his staff have had to develop some unique methods of trapping them. Strangest of these is the use of rockets. A long stretch of fairly fine mesh net is carefully hidden in the stubble of nearby fields where the geese feed. Each end of the net is attached to a 10-pound rocket projectile fired from a launching ramp. When the geese have begun to feed in front of the net the rockets are fired electrically and sweep forward over the startled geese, dragging the net with them. The rocket net is now so efficient that as many as 380 geese have been taken in a single "throw."
Once captured, the geese are marked, weighed, examined with a fluoroscope to see if they are carrying gun shot, and finally simultaneously released from special keeping cages so that family or flock structures are not broken up.
Different colored aluminum bands, that can be identified at a distance, are used, bearing a number and an address. Sometimes the birds are marked with bright-colored dyes so that individuals can be identified at a considerable distance. Startled and incredulous English hunters gaze in bewilderment as geese sporting bright purple tails sweep overhead—but the system works, even though the gaudy geese seem a bit conspicuous at first.
Most of the banding work is done in central Iceland. The Trust has now sent two banding expeditions there under Scott's command. During the summer the adult geese molt their flight plumes and cannot fly, and the young birds have not yet grown their first flight quills. As a result the whole goose population is land-bound for about three weeks, and Scott has worked out an ingenious method for taking advantage of this fact. Expedition members on Icelandic ponies go galloping cowboy style across the flat country, rounding up families and flocks. The geese streak across for the nearest high ground. Part of Scott's group remains concealed just over the crest of the hills where the surprised geese halt and collect into a tight bunch. As soon as the gaggle has been assembled, a small corral of nylon netting is set up on stakes and the birds are driven slowly into it. The size of the drives is often tremendous. Twice, gaggles of over 3,000 geese were corraled in one drive. All in all, Scott's party has caught more than 9,000 geese in this unusual manner. All of the birds were banded and some will appear at Slimbridge each winter where they will be retrapped in rocket nets, thereby producing samples from which the total population figures for pink-foot geese can be deduced. Others will be shot in far places, and the return of the bands will enable Scott to trace migration routes and the range of the species. When all the information is in, the Trust will be able to provide the facts upon which an intelligent control of pinkfoot hunting can be based.
Ducks are also trapped for banding purposes, by a method as ancient as the rocket nets are modern. Included in the New Grounds is a duck trap built 110 years ago. In essence the trap, or decoy as it is properly called, consists of a square pond of about an acre. From each corner a curving ditch, growing steadily narrower, leads off into the underbrush. Overlapping wicker screens stand at intervals along the sides of each ditch, or "pipe," behind which the decoyman can hide. The pipe itself is covered by a tapered tunnel of netting stretched on hoops and it terminates in a catching pocket.
A DOG LEADS THE DUCKS
Getting the ducks into the decoy pipe is a fine art. It is usually accomplished with the help of a specially trained dog, often a nondescript mongrel endowed with superior brains. When the ducks have gathered on the pond the dog suddenly appears, jumping over a low screen called a dog-leap. The ducks are startled but they seem to realize that they are safe enough on water and they begin to give way to a strange type of mob psychology. The dog seems to be alone and, as with human beings, ducks can seldom resist the opportunity to mob a single enemy who can't fight back. Quacking loudly, the birds swim toward the dog who retreats and disappears, to reappear a moment later farther up the mouth of one of the pipes. Thoroughly excited, and urging each other on to mayhem, the ducks follow until suddenly the decoyman steps out of hiding behind them, cutting off their escape.
The Trust also bands ducks on a second and much older decoy at Borough Fen. This decoy has been supplying ducks, mostly mallards, to the market since 1630, and during the entire unbroken period of its operation it has been worked by one family.
Since its inception the Trust has cooperated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as with the Delta Waterfowl Research Station in Manitoba, Canada, where many of the Slim-bridge birds originally came from. Not only birds, but ideas are traded as well. Scott himself went out to the Delta Station a few years ago to assist in building the first decoy in North America. Perhaps the most intriguing international aspect of the Trust's activities is the way the world at large has assisted in building up the Severn collection.
In the beginning the collection consisted of about 50 waterfowl of only 10 different species. By the end of the first year there were 70 different species in the pens and as word of the project found its way around the world a steady stream of rare and exotic birds began to pour into Slimbridge. There were flightless steamer ducks and upland geese from the Falkland Islands near the borders of Antarctica, old squaw and harlequin ducks from Iceland, black ducks from the U.S.; pygmy geese and tree ducks from India and Australia, and even Hottentot teal from Africa.
Five rare trumpeter swans were flown from British Columbia to London as a gift to Queen Elizabeth, who was then princess, after her 1951 visit to Canada. She in turn presented them to Scott.
One of the most remarkable jobs ever done by the Trust has resulted in a 20% increase in the numbers of one of the rarest birds alive—the Nene, or Hawaiian goose.
The home range of these handsomely patterned birds is restricted to the Hawaiian Islands and with the importation of guns, the mongoose, dogs and wild pigs, the geese soon headed steeply for extinction. One man in Hawaii, Herbert C. Shipman, saw the threat of extinction and procured some Nenes which he kept in captivity in the hope that they would multiply. For a while they did, but then a tidal wave and a sequence of other disasters struck the little flock. Nevertheless, Shipman's efforts had managed to preserve a group of about 20 geese alive, at a time when the total number of Nenes in existence was down to approximately 31.
In 1949 the Hawaiian Board of Agriculture and Forestry made an effort to breed some of the geese on a reserve at Pohakuloa, using two pairs lent by Shipman. The Delta Research Station was asked for advice in the project, and they recommended that the Severn Trust be asked for help.
The Trust replied at once, and not by mail. The curator of the Severn collection, John Yelland, was sent posthaste to Hawaii where he spent the entire summer and helped to raise two Nene goslings. It was at this point that Shipman took a calculated risk and shipped a pair of the surviving geese to Slimbridge in the hope that Scott might have better luck at rearing young. Bad luck intervened again. The sexes of the Nene cannot be easily told apart, by men at any rate, and the two geese proved that they were both females when each laid a batch of infertile eggs. A frantic radiogram to Hawaii resulted in the despatch of a gander by air, but his arrival was too late for the breeding season. During 1950 only three goslings were raised in Hawaii, and it seemed certain now that the Nene must vanish.
But 1951 saw a spectacular change. In the spring both of the females at Slimbridge nested and an entire group of nine survived into maturity. In 1953 five more were successfully reared and so from the original three birds, there is now a group of 17 Nenes at Slimbridge. Scott expects to begin shipping Nenes back to Hawaii soon.
Keeping the collection at Slimbridge alive and in good health is a tremendous job. Since the birds come from all over the world, they may be subject to odd diseases and to queer dietary needs. Feeding them is not easy. Young fish-eating ducks, for example, have to be started on a diet of maggots, and the Trust has its own maggot factory for this purpose. When these fish ducks are a little older they require about 600 sticklebacks—small shallow-water fish—daily.
A LOW MORTALITY RATE
Geese, fortunately, are mostly grass-eaters and feeding them is less of a problem. A great many of the ducks and swans need grains of various kinds, however, and they also need tons of water plants such as duck weed, which is harvested on various bodies of water within 20 miles of the New Grounds. With more than 140 different kinds of birds to worry about, the job of the present curator, Tommy Johnston, is a tremendous one. But the mortality rate is amazingly low.
One of the aspects of the sanctuary that is confusing to everyone concerned is the way that wild ducks and geese join the flocks and become, voluntarily, members of the collection. Native swans, geese and ducks from all over Europe are constantly dropping in to see what Slimbridge is like, and many decide this is the life for them and stay for good. Some of the rarest of English birds have appeared out of the blue, including a Bewick's swan. One of the problems that these freeloaders give rise to is the question of interbreeding. The English native birds sometimes get confused and mate with perfect strangers so that the offspring look like nothing on earth—literally. Weird hybrids wander happily about the pens, making the job of record-keeping difficult. But at Slimbridge anything on wings is welcome—except the ever-present jets.
The work that is done at the Trust falls into three main divisions. First, straight conservation work including a wide-spread educational campaign that, in 1952, attracted at least 25,000 visitors to Slimbridge to see what Scott and his people had accomplished.
Second is the amassing of scientific data on waterfowl populations, without which no intelligent plans for future bird conservation can be made. Banding, marking and summer studies on nesting grounds make up the main elements of this work.
The third type of work is utterly fascinating, for it is concerned with bird behavior studies. Scientists from all over the world come to Slimbridge to study the activities of certain species under the almost ideal conditions prevailing there. And some of the results are bizarre in the extreme. It appears that birds can have just as unusual temperaments and fancies as any human being. There is, for example, the case of one tree duck who, accidentally deprived of his mate, fell wildly in love with Johnston, the curator, and followed that hapless man about lovingly everywhere he went. In desperation, Johnston managed to persuade the duck to transfer his affections to a dog instead. One wonders what Freud would have thought about that one!
Oddly enough, most of the waterfowl in the collection seem to get on well together, despite the variety in species. There are, however, a few exceptions. The Egyptian goose, as might be expected, is a phenomenally bad-tempered anglophobe who has no use for any other creature, bird or man. He bites the hand that feeds him, literally. As a result of his evil temper he is one of the few birds that have been segregated into small pens and denied the general freedom of the place.
AN EASEL NEAR THE BIRDS
While the facilities for the birds are excellent, the living quarters for Scott and his small staff have so far been rather primitive. Scott and his attractive young wife and daughters have lived for the past few years in a little farm cottage on the grounds, a place crammed with books and with Scott's paintings. However, last year the couple built a new house whose 8-by-10 foot studio window is almost lapped by the water of one of the goose ponds. Here Scott can stand at his easel while a myriad of ducks and geese sweep by to settle within 20 feet of him.
Over the years Peter Scott has become one of the foremost painters of waterfowl, and when one looks at his work it is easy to understand something of the fascination and beauty which he finds in studying wild ducks and geese. Much of what Scott feels for these birds he has passed on to his friend Paul Gallico, whose famous and moving story, The Snow Goose, resulted from his association with Scott and Slimbridge.
A visit to Slimbridge soon demonstrates the truth of what Gallico wrote and what Scott paints: that there are few things in this world more stirring and more satisfying than the intimate and friendly mingling of the great water birds of the world with their sometime archenemy—man.
KEY TO BIRDS IN TREE ON COVER
1 Marsh hawk
3 Scrub jay
4 Evening grosbeak
5 Red-bellied woodpecker
6 Tree swallow
7 Brown thrasher
8 Blue grosbeak
9 Wood thrush
10 Bronzed grackle
11 Rosebreasted grosbeak
12 Prothonotary warbler
14 Yellow-headed blackbird
16 Mourning warbler
17 Barn swallow
18 Redtailed hawk
19 Cliff swallow
20 Loggerhead shrike
21 Sparrow hawk
22 Blue jay
23 Vermilion flycatcher
24 Yellow warbler
25 Hooded oriole
26 Baltimore oriole
27 Red-shouldered hawk
28 Common bluebird
29 Blackthroated blue warbler
30 Screech owl
31 Eastern blue-gray gnatcatcher
32 White-breasted nuthatch
34 Eastern flicker
35 Scarlet tanager
36 House wren
38 Canada warbler
39 Red-headed woodpecker
40 Hooded warbler
41 Short-eared owl
42 Cedar waxwing
45 Indigo bunting
46 Gila woodpecker
47 Yellow-billed cuckoo
48 Brown-capped chickadee
49 Pine grosbeak
50 American magpie
51 Pileated woodpecker
52 Eastern goldfinch
55 Ruby-throated hummingbird
56 Eastern towhee
58 American three-toed woodpecker
59 White-crowned sparrow