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Too cold for Great Bustards?
By Sarah Jones
BBC Wiltshire

Great Bustard, Salisbury Plain
Severe winters with a lot of snow can force populations of Bustards to migrate.

The Great Bustard is a hardy bird but that doesn't stop it, in severe winters with a lot of snow, deciding to migrate.

So as one of the coldest and whitest winters for decades hits the county, will Wiltshire's Great Bustard population decide to stick around or head south?

"It's a little bit of a worry," says Al Dawes The Great Bustard's Release Site Manager. "We're entering the unknown. They have the potential to migrate but where would they go?"

Great Bustard, Salisbury Plain
The birds seem to be coping well in the -10C temperatures.

It was back in 2004 when the world's heaviest flying bird, the Great Bustard, was reintroduced back onto Salisbury Plain after a 185 year absence.

And it was back in the summer that for the first time in 177 years, Great Bustard chicks were hatched on British soil.

But six months and copious amounts of snow later, how is the Great Bustard coping on the wilds of Salisbury Plain?

"They're a hardy bird used to this sort of weather," says Al, "But deep snow is ordinarily a trigger for them to disperse in order to find food."

And as strong fliers, able to cover over 1,000 kilometres in just a few days, they have the capability of dispersing quite a long way. But are they gearing up for a mass migration?

"They're strong fliers if they want to be," says Al. "But it's not a big concern. The snow cover on Salisbury plain isn't too deep and there are shoots such as oil seed rape poking through the snow. So they're having no problems finding food."

Finding food aside, it also takes quite a lot for the biggest bird in Europe to get off the ground so it's not surprising that Wiltshire's biggest bird has decided to stay grounded:

Wildlife cameraman Manuel Hinge
Manuel Hinge filming for BBC 1's Snow Watch

"They're not doing a great deal at the moment," says Al. "They're not trying to fly, because of the energy it expends, so as a result they're staying put."

But what does 'staying put' mean for the Bustard flock?

For some of the older birds which have already experienced the worst a Wiltshire winter can throw at them it's a walk on the plain.

But for the new recruits, which haven't experienced a British winter yet, it's more of a worry especially when one of the batch of greenhorns is Britain's first Bustard fledgling for nearly two centuries.

"The new fledgling hasn't been seen for some time," says Al, "but it's very difficult to see them away from the release site. They're very shy birds and rarely encountered.

"But in the spring they congregate at the release site, they return to the site to breed, so that's the best time to see them."

Or, hopefully, at 8.00 pm on BBC 1 when you might be able to spot a Great Bustard or two in a 'Snow Watch' special due to be broadcast on Wednesday January, 13

Wildlife cameraman Manuel Hinge shivered for four hours in a 'make-shift hide' to get footage of the bustards in the snow so lets hope they make the edit.

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