Park lake surprises

Some lakes and ponds start as ways of managing a local flooding issue or as a means of enhancing a local park (whilst again helping drain the surrounding land). Broadwater lake is one of these. Set in a large multi-user park, the lake gives a glimpse of a wilder environment.

With  a few minutes spare Francis and I stopped and strolled round the lake, it only takes 20 minutes or so (unless of course you get distracted by the local wildlife).

First surprise was the number of Moorhen, over 30, and their apparent tameness.

Mr Moorhen with his followers!

I probably need to explain that my fellow writer, Francis, long ago adopted the Moorhen as his totemic bird! Many of his friends know that he is probably the only person in the world to be tattooed with an image of a Moorhen! Yes, really!

I am hoping that he will illuminate us all on the wonders of this charming bird…………..

Adaptable and clever

Coincidentally my winter visiting Moorhen, Morris (I like to think it’s the same bird!), has reappeared in my garden to feed on apples and the spillage from feeders.

On the water were the expected Mallards and Canada geese

but further out were Tufted ducks and Great Crested Grebes, always lovely to see.

Some of the bank had been left with mature trees and a scrubby fringe which allow more vulnerable and nervous wildlife a bit of refuge.


Hidden hunter

Lots of people run round the lake or walk a dog but take some time and move quietly and you will be surprised at what you will find.

Forgotten waters

It is easy to forget the importance of open water to wildlife particularly when you live in a landlocked county not famed for its’ lakes. Most of the larger bodies of open water in Surrey are a result of human need, gravel and sand pits, or a demonstration of human vanity and the need to engineer a landscape. Whatever the origin nature has a way of exploiting water wherever it appears.

I returned to an old haunt today, Sheepwalk Lake, with a not altogether legitimate motive but more of that later!

Sheepwalk is one of a series of old gravel pits in the Thames valley to be found in the forgotten Surrey borough of Spelthorne. Forgotten as it appears as London, urban and crossed by the M3 and under the Heathrow flightpaths. Old mineral workings are one of the boroughs saving graces for wildlife.

Neighbouring M3

Many of these local pits are now used for water sports but Sheepwalk is only fished as part of the Civil Service Angling Society waters. As a consequence it often attracts waterfowl during the winter looking for a bit of peace and quiet, M3 and jets-no problem!

But 1 person triggers flight!

A bracing walk round the lake reveals lots of small birds in the trees and dozens of Tufted duck, Coots and small groups of Gadwall, Gt Crested grebes and Pochard.

Coot by Steve Duffy

Even more birds on the yachting lake next door, no boats today! Same ducks but supplemented with Cormorants, Swans and lots and lots of Coots.

Cormorant by Steve Duffy

All the way round and a quick glimpse of blue and a Kingfisher iced the cake. Always stop and have a look at accessible open water, it will often provide bird surprises and in clear winter skies there is a harsh beauty to enjoy.

As to that alterior motive, well years ago somebody planted several contorted willow whips which I was hoping to plunder for Christmas twigs. Thing is trees grow and what were reachable scrubby saplings are now bloody great trees!

Tall contorted Willow!

Observing All Hours

To know what kind of wildlife uses a reserve you to actually have to watch and observe the area to record the species present. In my new reserve, or garden as some might call it, I have mainly had casual observations whilst looking out of the window often whilst washing up and the other day I thought I ought to start trying to record more species and share them with yourselves and send records in of what I recorded so I could add to the database of recording and monitoring the state of our wildlife. This year I have spent more time in the reserve than ever before and after undertaking the clearance work and all the continuing ground preparation, this has added up to a fair few hours out there. When the first few flowers started to attract insects, I started to make notes of the records from the garden. Then I started to run the Moth trap and have so far recorded over 40 species. All of the Moth species records have been sent in to the recorders. The whole reason for planting this area up was to attract wildlife at looking back over the last six months; so far so good.

The other day I woke up early and the skies were dark at I thought this maybe the day to have a look at the reserve at dawn to see what was using the area. As I lay in bed I heard the first Robin song in the darkness and knew there would be some action soon, so I got up and made a coffee and positioned myself to see what would turn up.

Early Bird

There were 3 Robins in song in the area and as the light became stronger the local Carrion Crows began to leave their roosts and call loudly. I had brought a new bird feeder in the week and positioned it where cat attacks would be quickly spotted. So far, I’ve not witnessed any attempts and, in all honesty, it was taking the local bird population a while to get used to the new feeder, with birds that were using the feeders adopting a smash and grab style of feeding. I saw Great Tit and Blue Tit using this method today and noted the one Blue Tit who was braver than the rest and fed on the peanuts for a minute before the local squirrel arrived. Now we all know how ingenuous these animals are at raiding bird feeding stations and this one crawled along the fence at sat a couple of feet away contemplating its’ next move. It seemed unsure of the situation and decided that eating the bird food on the ground was a better option and proceeded to this feeding method. Its’ presence seemed to scare the smaller birds away from using the new feeding station. The local Magpies were also unhappy as they were coming in and feeding on any leftover peanuts that the Badgers had missed from the night before.

The squirrel to and froes for 5 minutes and I noted it burying some of the food it collected in 3 different locations all of which were going to be dug over in the forthcoming weeks in order to prepare the ground for next year’s planting! Tough luck for the squirrel! Eventually it moved off and after a few moments I saw a Jay fly right over the reserve and land in the woods behind. It called and flew on to the fence and then flew to the ground found himself a missed peanut and flew off into the woods with its food. This was about 5 or six seconds in total and I had that “right time, right place feeling”. Up until then, I had never seen any Jay’s on the ground on the reserve before and made it worthwhile being up early to witness this and remember how opportunistic Jay’s and the Corvid family in general, can be. There were other birds feeding on the ground as well in the quietness of the early morning with Robins, Blackbirds and even a Great Tit taking some fallen seeds. I will most definitely repeat a dawn watch at various times of the year in the future as you can then see some behavioural differences. As I’m aware that the birds here are not totally comfortable with the new feeding station yet but am also aware that it has been very mild again in the last week and I’ve seen plenty of seeds and berries as I’ve travelled about the area. There’s still quite a bit of natural food left out there, so the birds will not be so desperate to be find garden feeders yet. I’m waiting for some really cold weather to see how the birds react and if the feeder gets more active. We shall see.
After finishing this piece, I decided on a coffee and as I stood at the sink a winter Tit flock arrived on the reserve and for 10 frenzied minutes I saw 3 Blue tit, 3 Great Tit 1 Coal Tit 2 Nuthatches and 1 Long Tailed Tits all feeding at the new restaurant. It may be mild but they can’t turn down food!

Ears and Eyes to the Sky

My life being involved with the natural world really started with birds. I was lucky with the fact that near to where I grew up there was a very active Y.O.C. club, that’s Young Ornithologists Club to those old enough to remember and was the junior section of the R.S.P.B. now called the Wildlife Explorers. I had been taken on many a walk in the local park as a young child and from eight years old was going on field trips to different places where I learnt more and was lucky in the fact that I picked up on calls and songs of birds quickly. This is still one of my main bird watching tools and during my lifetime of studying birds it never leads me occasionally to comical results.

I was fortunate to witness ‘ vis mig ‘ at several English east coast locations during times of migration, that’s visible migration by the way. I have seen small sparrow sized species arrive on our shores in varying styles and numbers. I’ve seen flocks of Linnet flying at speed along beaches and on the same day seen single birds flying high

Many of these small birds were often seen from quite a distance and even with good optics it was difficult to identify them unless they called. Many birds will call whilst migrating and this will give the observer a chance to identify them.
Only this morning whilst out in my reserve/garden I heard a call above me and looked up to see four small birds flying high in a south easterly direction. I was taken back to the vis mig days and inspired to write this piece. The birds flying over were Skylarks that were moving/migrating to new feeding areas. In this day and age this is a notable record as Skylark have massively declined in recent years due changes in agriculture.

Over the years of studying birds I have observed many species by knowing their calls and although sometimes you may not get the best views in the world, you will know that that species is actually present. By knowing bird calls and songs you will observe more and often in places you may not expect. In recent years I have spent more time in town and have recorded a number of species that I was alerted to by calls that could even be heard in the hustle and bustle of a busy town. I regularly hear and see Grey Wagtails, Peregrines, Goldfinch and Swifts. Occasionally I have heard & observed Common Terns and even in the dark I have heard migrating Redwing.
My advice to see more birds would be learn their sounds and although it can be difficult it is well worth the effort and you will never be bored. At this time of year there are not many birds singing apart from Robins, Wrens and Song Thrush but you can still hear all the calls of the other species. So, get out there and see what you can hear! Good luck with it and I hope your ears help solve some secrets