On manoeuvres: great bustards on Salisbury Plain.

A male great bustard in all his finery

Some wildlife photographers have attempted to boost their income in recent years by setting up a hide in a likely position, getting birds and mammals acclimatised to being fed there, and then renting it out to other photographers. Species involved include red squirrels and ospreys. Some of latter have learned that easy prey can be found at certain fish farms. To offset their losses the owners of these facilities have built a hide nearby, and who can blame them! But for me the satisfaction (and frustration) of wildlife photography begins with researching where a species might be found. It continues through the location of individuals  – “the thrill of the hunt”  – to the press of the shutter button. It is said that well-off but “time-poor” photographers were more likely to take advantage of hide set-ups such as this. I have always said that I would never do it.

Last year my plans to visit Mallorca in the spring were frustrated by Covid travel restrictions and then Plan B suffered the same fate. Part of Plan B was to visit the Great Bustard Group reintroduction site on Salisbury Plain, where volunteers take visitors out in a Land Rover to see the birds. Earlier this spring I discovered that while the Land Rover trips were not yet in operation, the GBG had set up a hide specifically for photographers and were renting it out. The cost was substantial but I had just sold the last remnant of my Canon system – a x1.4 converter which I found lurking at the back of a cupboard – for the same sum. Whatever the outcome, I felt that it was a donation to a cause that I was happy to support. So I clicked OK.

Male human in observation mode

I worried about the weather, of course, and checked the forecast at regular intervals. On the appointed day the first depression for weeks was due to cross the country, with heavy rain and gales. It felt like Sod’s Law was in operation here.  A meeting was arranged in a layby on one of the main roads crossing the Plain – at 5.30 in the morning. It was all a bit hush-hush. I was led to some farm buildings a couple of miles away where I met the guide, Nigel Cope, and was fitted up with my Great Bustard suit for the walk to the hide The weather was actually quite pleasant; light cloud overall but little wind. Conditions were actually very good for bird photography but as for the bustards – well, I could see several quite clearly but the nearest were at least a quarter of a mile away.

Great bustards are huge and extraordinary-looking birds, especially the males. They are more than three feet in height (females much smaller), and stride purposefully across the landscape. Their plumage is a mixture of white, black and shades of chestnut, with a grey head and dark blue bare patches on either side of the neck. On closer examination the blue patches are scattered with white spots, reminding me of a starlit night sky. In display, the males seem to turn themselves inside-out and became largely white.

A “semi-display” pose

Nigel left me in the hide. I knew good sightings of the bustards were not guaranteed but this was disappointing. I went outside, photographed myself in the bustard suit, and went back in. Then, two and half hours after arriving, I opened the rear flaps of the hide: I couldn’t believe my eyes! Three male bustards were right out in the open, perhaps fifty yards away! Now I had to keep calm.

They weren’t exactly difficult to photograph. One began displaying but at first – and frustratingly – he was behind some tall, straggly stems of dead vegetation. He then moved a short distance into a field of lucerne and went through the whole sequence in full view in the open. I probably giggled and danced a little jig myself. The male bustard seems to pick a spot, inflate his neck pouch and turn himself inside out, rotate, rinse and repeat. They are said to gather together and display at “leks” rather like black grouse do, but that didn’t seem to be the case here. They were more mobile than that; I saw one male in the distance furiously displaying at a single female.

On manoeuvres.

It is believed that at one time great bustards bred in about a dozen counties in the UK, but became extinct due to persecution and agricultural change. They last nested in 1832. Led by David Waters, the re-introduction project on Salisbury Plain began in 2004. Chicks were brought first from Russia and later from Spain. Breeding began in 2009 and there is now a self-sustaining population of about a hundred birds on Salisbury Plain. Strangely the project hasn’t received the support from mainstream conservation organisations that one might expect.

While a much unimproved grassland still exists on the Plain thanks to the extensive military ranges there, the bustards seem quite happy on the farmland around the perimeter. By mid-morning bustard activity had died down, and the promised inclement weather had begun to make itself felt. As I left the site a large group of GBG volunteers were beginning to comb the lucerne field, shortly to be mown for silage, for clutches of eggs which would be incubated artificially. Personally I was glad to retire to a warm hotel room that afternoon to catch up on some sleep.

For more information on the project, see this clip from Springwatch –

https://youtu.be/aL5LFGk_Qd8

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