A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The Golden Pheasants at Wolferton Triangle (he was there!)

Before Christmas I managed to persuade Alex to drive us both down to Norfolk so I could catch up with a much anticipated bird – the Golden Pheasant!

Having made two prior visits to their favoured hotspot of the Wolferton Triangle and not seen any, this was my first dawn visit and I was hoping for some success and a case of third time lucky! The previous evening we had sprinkled some seed along the roadside at one particular male’s favourite spot on the road, and returned early the next morning whilst it was still dark to watch and wait.
Wolferton Triangle
The first bird we clocked on to was a Woodcock busy feeding on the soft roadside verge – the only views I’ve actually had of this species on the ground. However, with the Goldies showing best early in the morning, and having been there since dawn with the time fast approaching 9 o’clock, we were getting a little concerned that we hadn’t seen anything – nearly an hour and a half in to the sunlight and still no sign of our target!

Several false alarms of Common Pheasants on the roadside gave us a little hope, then, as we turned the corner driving back along the North road – BOOM!! – he was there!!!! Success!!!!
Golden Pheasant
The male in all his resplendent glory was stood at the side of the road, busy feeding on the previous nights seed in the company of the slightly larger Common Pheasant. Not wanting to startle him, we watched from a distance before slowly approaching in the car, looking on as he slowly crossed the road (interestingly chasing off the Common Pheasant quite aggressively) and continued to feast on the bounty of seed we had left out for him.

Usually seen quickly crossing the road before disappearing in to the thicket of Rhododendrons, this was a great opportunity to observe him at our leisure, providing around ten minutes in which we took in the absolutely stunning plumage, vivid feather colours and the magnificent tail.
Golden Pheasant
After studying some photos of a bird seen a few weeks earlier (kindly supplied by Harry Murphy - shots on the right) I was interested to find out if this was in fact the same individual. Studying the two shots side by side and comparing the feather patterns on the neck in certain spots, it’s clear to see they match up and that this is indeed the same male. Also seen in the exact same spot, he seems to favour the area just in front of the sign near the junction at the end of the North Road adjoining the main road.
Golden Pheasant
The bottom right feathers and top feather patterns are identical
Golden Pheasant
The top feathers and the bottom corner feathers again show exactly the same markings

An in-depth look at the population:

Having been kept in captivity in the UK since 1725 and first released in to the wild in Norfolk in the 1840’s, Golden Pheasants have thrived in this particular spot and it is one of the best places in the country to see this brightly coloured wonder. Indeed, the UK birds are the only known fully established population in the wild outside China that are fully self-sustaining (included on the British list under Category C1E).

However, in recent years their numbers have been seen to decline, perhaps due to an increase in predation of adults and chicks from foxes, and it is unknown as to how many individuals may actually be left. The total UK population was estimated to be between just 85 and 118 pairs in 2000, and 15 years later this has fallen dramatically, so it is unknown just how many are still residing in this small patch of woodland. It would be interesting to determine how many birds are indeed left here, and whether all of the recent sightings have been of this same male. Indeed, with wild adult birds living for around 5-6 years, once he disappears will the number of sightings reduce significantly?
Golden Pheasant
The male in his favourite spot just beyond the junction on the North Road
 This particular population has also been the subject of a fierce debate due to the dark throat colouration displayed by the individuals here – not typical of wild Golden Pheasants. Whilst once thought to be the result of hybridisation with Lady Amherst’s Pheasants, it is now believed that they are indeed pure and the unusual colouration is in fact the result of a gene mutation due to the depleted numbers and genetic bottleneck that has resulted.

This dark throated form, the variation “obscurus” (as seen in these birds) is commonly found and well known in captive populations of pure bred birds, and is widely seen through the captive rearing of Golden Pheasants due to the limited genetic flow and higher chance of gene mutation as a result.
Golden Pheasant
The dark throat seen in var. obscurus is clearly visible
When a population is heavily inbred (due to the small numbers of individuals) as seen in the dwindling population of the Wolferton birds, such mutations are far more likely to occur, and in recent years the Breckland birds (another location in the UK) have also begun to show this characteristic. It is only natural that as the number of birds gets smaller and smaller, the mutation of the dark throat becomes more pronounced in those individuals that are left which are then left to breed with one another. With this species reluctance to cross open country, either via flight or on foot, dispersal and colonisation of new areas is extremely limited, with a lack of fresh genetic material contributing to the limited gene pool in the Wolferton Population.

It is also worth noting that no Lady Amherst’s Pheasants have been reported in the area (nor at the Brecklands site) and there is no evidence that they ever have, so it is extremely unlikely that hybridisation is the cause of the dark throat patch. Studying photos of hybrid Lady A x Golden Pheasants, the individuals all seem to display characteristics of both parents, red, blue and yellow feathers on the body, but white and black tails and neck feathers (as well as a distinct ‘scruffy’ appearance typical of hybrid birds). This is not the case with any of the Wolferton birds however, with the classic gold and black tail and neck feathers present with no hint of white.
Golden Pheasant - Wolferton Triangle
Not a hint of white can be seen in the feathers of this individual indicating a lack of hybridisation
However, we also need to delve further in to the history of the released birds, as it is often stated that there are NO pure Lady A or Golden Pheasant populations anywhere in Europe. The captive stock released over 100 years ago may well have contained genes from both species (albeit 99% of one parent) with crosses somewhere in the parentage long ago in captivity.
Golden Pheasant - Wolferton Triangle
The male showing off the beautiful feather patterns and fiery head crest
Regardless, they are absolutely remarkable birds, and it was a truly magical experience to finally have such great views of one – plastic fantastic indeed!

1 comment:

  1. I like this article because you present the very informative facts of Pheasant Bird. I also like this Golden Pheasant Bird pictures that you place here.


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