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.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - MIKE DIL­GER’S

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.

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