Mike Dilger’s wildlife watching
In his series of great places to watch wildlife in the UK, the star of BBC One's The One Show this month takes us on an outing to Britain's reservoirs, with tips on how best to view winter wildfowl.
Take a trip to Britain’s reservoirs to enjoy winter wildfowl displays
While there may be no discernible distinction between lakes and reservoirs in many people’s minds, the one key difference comes down to their evolution. While lakes are phenomena formed thousands of years ago as a result of glacial, volcanic or tectonic activity, reservoirs, by contrast, are a product of man’s dominion over nature – ensuring our nation’s need to stay hydrated is sated throughout the year.
Much of Britain’s water supply infrastructure was developed over the last 150 years, to cope with the demands of a growing population and an increased need from industry and agriculture. During reservoir construction, all emphasis was placed on the feat of actually containing the water, while precisely zero thought was given to their potential as a future conservation asset.
In fact, it was not until a seminal paper by the renowned wildfowler George Atkinson-Willes in 1961, that the conservation community began to realise how crucial reservoirs are for wildlife, and overwintering wildfowl in particular. Their elevated importance came about due to a combination of the loss of many lakes in the countryside, and increased wildlife disturbance as many other waterbodies became popular for a variety of recreational purposes. Still, clearly all reservoirs are not equally important for wildlife, with the larger reservoirs generally able to accommodate larger numbers of waterbirds. Also, census work seems to indicate that shallow reservoirs in Britain’s lowlands are more attractive than upland
reservoirs, which are subject to harsher winters and invariably contain deeper water, due to a more undulating topography.
With many water authorities now actively promoting visits from naturalists, the best reservoirs for winter wildfowl often have numerous hides strategically placed for maximum viewing pleasure and minimal disruption. These are usually situated both close to the water's edge and low down to the water – all waterbirds are best enjoyed as close as possible to eye level. It’s also worth remembering that, on a cold January morning, the sun may well be low in the sky, making viewing from certain angles difficult. So it’s certainly worth considering which hides or locations will be most effective at certain times of the day, as the best light will be on offer with the sun behind you – it’s ideal for photography, too.
Having completed their annual moult by late autumn, all wildfowl will undoubtedly be looking at their most dapper in January, as they show off their attractive plumage in preparation for the upcoming breeding season. Of course, birding is about much more than just the identification of species and the counting of individuals. January is the time to catch some fascinating avian flirtation – a pair of shovelers in their revolving yin and yang courtship, or a drake goldeneye displaying with a consummate flick of his head – enough to warm even the coldest day’s birdwatching.
“It’s certainly worth considering which hides or locations will be most effective at certain times.”
At Chew Valley Lake, early morning is perfect for birdwatching. Waterfowl are often feeding at this time, undisturbed by humans.
A bird count taking place from a hide on Rutland Water.
Hides offer an opportunity to observe waterfowl behaving naturally.