Today we visited a fantastic project and got to see our very first Great Bustards. The Great Bustard Project has been running for about five years and their aim is to gradually reintroduce Great Bustards to the UK, a species that once roamed our countryside until persecution rendered the very last of the British species extinct in the 1840’s.
I am not permitted to reveal the exact location of the project but you, just like us can visit by appointment for the entrance fee of £7 per adult. I can tell you that the project is situated on Salisbury Plain which due to its association with the MOD is not generally accessible by the general public in any case. Ideal for the project as disturbance is kept to the minimum
We arrived at the meeting point and were met by the Project Manager Al Dawes who drove us across some fantastic terrain to the hide in his Land Rover. Salisbury Plain is very much untouched by humankind and some areas of it aren’t used a great deal by the MOD anymore but since they still own it, public access is not permitted. This is great news for wildlife because it thrives here and we saw a number of birds on our way out to the hide such as Kestrel, Buzzard and Hen Harrier (we think, weren’t 100% sure). Short Eared Owls have recently been spotted in the area by the GBG (Great Bustard Group) team and one of the last sightings had been today. I guess Owls are more confident to hunt during daylight hours in a location like this because they know that there is very little human interference in the area.
We drove straight up to the hide and if you are a keen bird watcher and photographer like myself, you will know that wildlife don’t tend to see vehicles as a threat until you step out waving a large camera or scope in their direction! Its for this reason that we drove right up to the door and then stepped out to enter the hide.
Once we were in the hide we had some excellent views of the pen in which the Bustards are being released. Al imparted a large amount of fascinating information about the project, their aims and how the birds are tagged in order to monitor their progress should they choose to leave the pen. I was amazed to learn that they indeed do but even more amazed at how far some of them have travelled. Many of the birds make their way in the direction of Somerset, Gloucestershire and the entire Wessex region in general. Various people have reported sightings from all over the area and some have taken excellent photographs.
In some cases some of the Bustards have been traced as far as Southern France and further East into Europe.
The current population is still relatively small and comprises of birds that range from very young to the older generations who have reached sexual maturity and are most likely to breed. This is the hope naturally that the current birds will in time breed and to start spreading throughout the region and maybe even further afield. The most recent release was made back in September 2008 after some captive birds from Russia were released at the GBG site.
Today the Bustards were mainly visible in an area of short grass so were showing very well and could be studied with either binoculars or a scope in great detail. Bustards tend not to fly that often unless something disturbs them, as they prefer to spend their time on the ground and if threatened by a predator they are more likely to seek cover in a clump of heavy grass. However we were in for a treat, as half a dozen of the Bustards decided to fly out of the pen and disperse around the area. None of them vanished from view though, some settled in nearby fields and a couple returned to the pen a little while later and started to come in a little closer to us. The Bustards also demonstrated how well they can hide when they disappeared into heavy scrub and only their heads would poke out of the top!
I took a number of shots and wish I owned a more powerful lens something that is on my shopping list by the way, I am itching to get an 800mm but the price is just way too high right now! However the shots came out pretty well and show a little of their environment. The star shot though was of one of the Bustards in flight as it literally flew overhead and out of view.
We really enjoyed our visit and I would love to spend some more time there again in the future, to see if I can get some even better photos or better still to see if I can help out in any way.
If you would like to learn more about the project you can contact the following number to make an appointment to visit the site – 07817 971 327 or visit www.greatbustard.com
Plus there is an article on the RSPB website about the project