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, 10 March 2015

The last Lady Amherst's Pheasant in Bedfordshire

Saturday morning was one of those absolutely amazing birding experiences that you’ll never forget. One that will always stick in the mind. Lady Amherst’s Pheasant, In the wild. In Britain.

Having decided last year that in 2015 I was going to make Lady Amherst’s Pheasant my main target before it was too late and the species died out, I received news at the beginning of March that the male had been seen in its last remaining location in Bedfordshire.

With just one, possibly two males left in existence in the wild in the whole of the Western Palaearctic, let alone Britain, this species truly is the next Great Auk over here, destined to become extinct in Britain within the next few years. With 5 males known from 3 sites in Bedfordshire 7 years ago, their numbers have slowly dwindled, with no known surviving females.

Once a well established introduced species in Britain, found mainly in their strongholds of the Bedfordshire woodlands, Lady Amherst's Pheasants are now resigned to category C6 on the British list, reserved for former naturalised species whose populations are no longer considered to be self-sustaining or are now extinct. Interestingly, there was once a population local to me at Pentre Halkyn Cemetery in North Wales throughout the 80’s, with reports persisting there up until the mid 90’s and possibly even 2000, when sadly the population was thought to have died out.

Named after Sarah, countess of Amherst, her husband William was responsible for sending the first birds to London in the early 1800’s, and they were introduced here to the wild in around 1930. Shy and difficult to spot, the Lady Amherst's have a habit of staying hidden deep in the thick vegetation like their native counterparts in China, so we would be extremely lucky to catch a glimpse.

Staying overnight in Bedfordshire and arriving at dawn, it was a matter of waiting for the bird to appear (4 hours!) and at 10:00am one of our small group assembled at our chosen viewing spot on the path outside the fence exclaimed that the bird was showing. Having literally just picked up my rucksack and deciding to head off, I couldn’t believe it! With a rush of excitement, I immediately checked through my bins, and sure enough, there he was. He was there. I took a look through the scope to see the gorgeous male in full view in the grass in front of us. I hardly dared breathe, let alone move – the 4 Common Pheasants we had seen that morning got spooked and fled immediately as soon as anyone took a step.

Lady Amhersts Pheasant, Bedfordshire
Holding a phone in one hand trying to ring someone does not make for taking good photos! Still, it is my very own picture, showing a Lady Amherst, in the wild, in Britain :)
The gorgeous white belly and dark green iridescent and black tinged chest were magnificent to look at, the stylish white and black pattered neck a sight truly to behold. The bird looked quite nervous, despite us being relatively far away and concealed by the surrounding foliage, almost retreating back in to the undergrowth at one point, before he ventured out in to the open, displaying his absolutely magnificent tail for all to admire – the black and white stripes looking truly spectacular.

Almost as quickly as he arrived, he headed to the middle of the track – clear to everyone he was about to flee. A brief pause on the top of the hill, and there was a magical moment when the strong winds caught the tail feathers, flaring them up to frame the body and blowing in the wind to create a gorgeous display, the fiery yellows, golds and reds amongst the tail a kaleidoscope of colour around our black and white wonder.

Then, just like that, he was gone. Almost certainly never to be seen again by me in my lifetime. I will always remember that magnificent view - that brief moment when he paused on the hill – absolutely stunning.

Whilst some may scorn and regard the Lady Amherst’s with contempt almost, for me this was one of the best birding moments I’ve had, the sheer elation I felt when seeing him was unparalleled. In Britain, at least, he is truly the last of his kind, and that is something very special to witness indeed. 

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