Great Bustard Trip to Wiltshire (26 March 2024)

Photo by Jeremy Norris

18 of us had a wonderful day out starting with a guided trip run by the Great Bustard Group. Our volunteer guides Charles, John and Matt drove the 3 Land Rovers and told us all about the project. It was great fun and well worth a visit if you get a chance, especially at this time of year when the birds are leking. We were lucky enough to see at least 30 Bustards including a displaying male, birds at the closest they ever see them and 3 birds flying which is apparently a rare sight.
Great Bustards were driven to extinction in Great Britain when the last bird was shot on Salisbury Plain in 1832. Since 1998 The Great Bustard Group have re-introduced them, partly on a British Army training area, where lack of public access and disturbance allows these huge ground nesting birds the seclusion they need to breed. They do not like humans but are unfazed by shells exploding and tanks rushing past…as we found out. The project aimed to establish a self-sustaining population in the wild and achieved this in 20219. Now they have a self-sustaining group of over 50 birds, one in three wild bred and possibly a few 2nd generation birds.

Photo by Jeremy Norris

A male Great Bustard weighs about 20kg and a female is about half that size, so you’d think they’d be easy to find. The first group we found were a handsome male and 2 females, or so we thought, but a closer looking revealed another male and 15+ females blended into a large triangle of pale brownish ground. Once the male started to display however, he was unmissable. He puffed up his throat, tilted forwards and pulled his head in so that his long whiskery chin feathers pointed upwards and his head was invisible. Next, he cocked his tail over his back, exposing white plumage, then he lowered his wings, with the primary flight feathers folded back but with the white secondaries fanning out. It was an incredible sight and I’m sure the females were impressed, although they appeared to ignore him, but to us, standing up to a kilometre away, he could have been mistaken for an enormous, white, shredded plastic bag caught in the hedge! Collins describes this display as “a foam bath”!

Climbing back into the vehicles we thought things couldn’t improve but around the next hill we came across 5 males much closer to the track and then 2 females emerged from the vegetation. Turning around another 3 males were on the slope behind us and then 2 more males and a female strutted over the brow of the hill. Three of these birds then flew towards us. Our guide, Charles, said that he had worked for the project for 2 years before he saw the birds fly because although they are good fliers they tend not to, preferring to walk.

Photo by Kate Harmon

We had to be practically dragged away from the Bustards, but our time was up. Reluctantly we climbed back into the Land Rovers and were driven along a flooded track past the release pens and fields where some of the birds choose to nest. They have predator proof fences unlike the open plain where foxes etc predate the chicks. An important part of the project’s work is searching for eggs from neighbouring farmland before equipment comes in to cut silage crops. The rescued eggs are sent to the Cotswold Wildlife Park for hatching then the newly hatched birds are returned to the project and these pens. Volunteers, dressed in suits to disguise their identity as humans, feed the birds until they are ready to be released. On this short ride Brenda spotted a couple of Grey Partridge and a Raven and Red-legged Partridges were seen.

Apart from Great Bustards our whole visit was filled with farmland birds. We had a soundtrack of ‘jangling keys’ from Corn Buntings on fences, telegraph wires and bushes along with singing Skylarks, Goldfinches and a couple of Yellowhammers. Our trip ended in a small shop and museum housed in a shipping container. We all spent plenty of money, keen to support this impressive project which receives hardly any external funding!

As we returned to our cars at Enford Village Hall it started to drizzle. Luckily lunch in a local pub (thanks to Sarah for arranging this) enabled us to shelter from the pouring rain which unfortunately continued for the rest of the day. Some people might happily have stayed in the pub all afternoon, but instead we moved on to Winterborne Downs RSPB in search of Stone Curlews. Here the RSPB have recreated a wildlife-rich habitat, once typical of most Wiltshire chalk downland farms, to provide a safe habitat for Stone Curlews and Lapwings.

Photo by Clare Million

A 5-minute walk from the car park brought us to a screen overlooking one of two marked off nesting areas. Before seeing the birds, we heard their weird, noisy, Curlew like calls. Eventually a bird was spotted standing stock still in the grass, then another and soon three more stood up and walked past but with rapidly steaming up and rain-soaked optics they were hard to see. There was also a Lapwing and some wet, hunched up Brown Hares which were hard to distinguish from clods of earth. The birds seemed unconcerned by the pouring rain… which is more than can be said for our group! 15 of them quickly returned to their cars while 3 of us walked the 1-mile loop trail. We added better views of what turned out to be 6 Stone Curlews on the first area, 2 more from the Lapwing screen and one calling and flying into a sunken circular scrape outside either of the marked of areas! We also had lovely views of Brown Hares racing across the fields and Rooks, but we got drenched! Nevertheless, all in all an excellent trip.

by Rebecca Dunne

Richard – “…a really enjoyable trip yesterday to the Great Bustard Project.  I am not sure that this could have gone better as the Bustards pulled out pretty much every trick in their repertoire for us. And in the sunshine too. Also good to get to see Stone Curlews, albeit a bit rain bedraggled, in the afternoon. We continue to work on our fortitude to brave the elements no matter what and will hopefully be able to attain the Group’s standard at some point in the future!!