Sunday, 18 April 2010

The Trip to Portland and South-west England: In Search of Rare Ducks at Chew Valley Lake

For some teenagers, holidays seem to be received with great joy but end up being a source of deep and intense boredom. The boredom occurs due to the general lacaidaiscal attitudes that some teenagers possess and the fact that they can't think of how to use their time. Of course, I am not referring to all teenagers. Some teenagers manage their time brilliantly and get the most out of their time off. On my Easter holidays I certainly wasn't bored. I was the exact opposite, I was fully occupied! Just a few days after I had seen my first Bewick's Swan and had spotted an Egyptian Goose in the Ythan area, it was time for my Dad and I to travel down to South-west England. I am often down that way to visit relatives, and on this occasion I was down there for that reason. Well, partly. The difference was with this trip down to the South-west was that as well as visiting relatives, I would be doing a lot of birding and staying at the Portland Bird Observatory, a place renowned for the multitude of migrating bird species it gets. I would be staying in the Observatory for 5 days (7th-12th April), which would maximise our chances of spring migrants. For a whole week before this, however, I'd be seeing relatives. So on the 30th March we travelled down to Edinburgh and took a flight from here to Bristol, where my grandparents live. We arrived at my grandparents' house that evening and would be with them until Sunday 4th April, when we'd travel to Exmoor to see my auntie, uncle and cousin. One day between these dates though my Dad had said to me that we could go birding on one of them. Now, there were two birds that enticed us to get out birding during one of the days we spent in Bristol. Both birds were at a place called Chew Valley Lake, a massive area of freshwater that is just outside Bristol. The fact that it was just outside Bristol meant that going there was a perfectly good idea. Not only that, but my Dad was very familiar with the lake due to him birding there a lot in his teenage days, so not going would seem a bit stupid. The two birds that had been seen regularly for at least two weeks prior to our arrival were a Lesser Scaup and a Ferruginous Duck, both of which I had never seen before. On my visit to the lake I hoped to see either one or both of these ducks. The question was, which day was I going to visit?

In the end it was decided that we would go to Chew Valley Lake on Thursday 1st April, so after a day of pleasant socialising with my grandparents we headed down in our Renault Megane hire car and were there by half eleven. I had visited Chew Valley Lake before back in 2005 but my memory of the place was blurred, so visiting it again was actually like visiting it for the first time. Chew Valley Lake is a semi-natural reservoir ten miles south of Bristol, and it's the largest lake in south-west England. Fringing the water are plentiful reedbeds, rolling green fields and several areas of decidious and conifer woodland, an ideal range of habitats for birds. The one downside is however that fishermen and sailors use the lake a lot and thus it doesn't possess the splendid isolation of a lot of birding spots. Access to the several viewpoints on the lake is achieved by car with a road going round the whole lake, but to go to the birding hides and maximise your chances of seeing good birds you need to get a birding permit, which you can obtain at Woodford Lodge on the north-western side of the Lake for a cheapish sum of £2.50 for adults and £1.50 for children under the age of 16. Being just under 16 meant that my Dad had to pay a sum of £4.00 to visit the hides for the day, which seemed perfectly reasonable. When arriving at Woodford Lodge we found the trees to be alive with the calls of birds. Several Chiffchaffs were singing, and I was fortunate enough to locate a Willow Warbler which was singing very close by, my second spring migrant of the year. Having obtained our permit, we were in the process of heading southwards towards Heron's Green Bay when, as I looked out onto the water I spotted a large group of hirundines flying low over the lake. Getting my bins on them, I found out they were mostly Sand Martins, but with a good number of Swallows amongst them too. All of a sudden, I had seen 3 new species of spring migrant for the year within the space of a few minutes. The fact that this had happened so quickly instantly suggested to me that England was a couple of weeks ahead in its transition into spring, as I hadn't seen or heard any of those three species wheh in search of early spring migrants a week earlier at Girdleness. It really did seem comparatively spring like. So, having been nicely acquainted with 3 spring migrants in quick succession we headed to Heron's Green Bay as planned. I don't suspect you will know the route that I'm taking as a reader, so here is a link to a map of Chew Valley Lake ( I reccomend that you look at it so as not to be confused when I'm mentioning places on the lake that I'm visiting. The plan was to do a full circle of the lake, spending most of our time between Moreton Point and Stratford Bay as it was between these two places that both the Lesser Scaup and the Ferruginous Duck had been seen the most.

Within a few minutes of leaving Woodford Lodge we arrived at Heron's Green Bay, which had a fantastic view onto the lake. From here several species of duck could be seen with Goldeneye, Pochard, Shoveler, Teal and other commoner suspects present in good numbers, as well as good numbers of fine summer plumaged Great-crested Grebes and two Little Grebes. A Blackcap was heard calling from here but wasn't seen, as well as several Chiffchaffs and a couple of Willow Warblers. Also plenty of Sand Martins and Swallows continued to circle the Lake. Apart from this, however, it was relatively quiet at Heron's Green Bay so we headed down to our next stop at Moreton Point to visit a hide looking out from there. Here is a picture taken from Heron's Green Bay:

It was a small hop down to Moreton Point, but finding the hide here proved quite difficult. We presumed there would be a small turn off for it. There was, but first time round we somehow managed to miss it. In realisation, we turned back and due to more focus we soon found a small turn off down a track which said: to Moreton Hide. As we travelled down the track, my Dad noticed a large corvid sitting on top of a dead tree. Getting our bins onto it, we discovered that it was a Raven, being way to thick billed and bulky for a commoner crow and my first one of the year. Shortly after this unexpected encounter, we reached the small car park and found the hide with relative ease, which to our surprise was empty. Opening up the shutters, we quickly found a group of Tufted Ducks about 50ft away from us, and set out to scan them for one of the rarer ducks that we were pursuing. Almost every duck was a Tufted Duck except one small, grey backed and non-tufted individual. There it was, the Lesser Scaup! You couldn't mistake it. It was way too small for a Greater Scaup and was even smaller than the Tufted Ducks that it was beside. Checking birdguides we found that it hadn't been reported thus far, so I put it in at speed. As well as being told by its small sized, this cracking drake Lesser Scaup also had a small crest-like crown peaked at the rear of its head and darker which lacks on a Greater Scaup and a coarser, darker grey vermiculation than its commoner cousin. It showed absolutely superbly, feeding and drifting casually with the 20 Tufties that it was with and diving every few minutes. I noticed a lot of the time that it had a habit of hanging its head very low and close to the water, which a Greater Scaup rarely does. Even when it did straighten itself up, it was visibly smaller than the Tufties. The other thing that struck me about this bird was that it spent quite a lot of the time hanging around with a female Tufted Duck, and at one point tried to peck at her as if it were attracted to her. It seemed to me that it almost thought it was a Tufted Duck or that it was with a group of Lesser Scaups, as if it wasn't aware that it was a different species from the others. As the Tufted Duck group moved, it moved, and the closest the flock got was around 35ft from the hide. Even at a further distance I managed to get some ok photos of it. It was fantastic to see this Lesser Scaup, as the views were ideal and also it seemed that we were the first people to have come across it that day. Here are a few pictures that I got of this beauty of a bird and a view out from Moreton Hide (note that in every picture the Lesser Scaup is the smallest bird):

After about 15 minutes of watching the Lesser Scaup we were joined in the hide by a few of the local birders who were happy to know that it was still around. We watched it with them for another half an hour or so, enjoying very nice views of it. Whilst the locals were there we asked them to tells us how to get to the nearby Stratford Hide (which looks out over Stratford Bay), and after 3 quarters of an hour of watching the Lesser Scaup we decided that we were going to go there. At the same time we found out that no-one had seen the Ferruginous Duck there, but hope wasn't lost as it could still be anywhere on the Lake. After a nice walk in the sunny weather, we arrived at Stratford Hide. It was a perfectly placed hide, sticking some way out into water (hence why there was a boardwalk to it) and allowed for fantastic views of the wildfowl. Tufted Ducks, Great-crested Grebes, Coots and Pochards all came with no more than 12ft of the hide. It was great to see them all so close up without even having to use binoculars. As the birders at Moreton Hide had said, there was no Ferruginous Duck amongst the multitude of common duck species, but it was nice to just sit there for quarter of an hour having a late lunch looking out across the Lake and watching the wildfowl come very close to me. Once we had finished our lunch, we walked back to where we'd parked the car near Moreton Hide and headed to the next place along, Herriot's Pool. Here is a picture of Chew Valley Lake taken from Stratford Hide:

Herriott's Pool is a medium-sized pool situated just behind the Stratford Bay viewpoint, and is where the Ferruginous Duck is often seen. Yet again, there was massive variety of the common ducks, but no Ferruginous Duck to be seen. It seemed like the Ferruginous Duck was going to elude us now. However, Herriott's Pool had a bit more to offer than Stratford Bay and Heron's Green Bay. As my Dad and I were busy scanning the pool for any sign of the Ferruginous Duck, we heard a loud, warbler-like call from the reedbeds behind it. It was the unmistakable call of a Cetti's Warbler. The call had come from very close by, so in response to it calling my Dad and I tried to locate it. Most of the time these warblers are elusive little critters, but persistence managed to pay off after about a minute of staring fixatedly at the reedbeds when I saw the Cetti's Warbler fly across the reeds for a few seconds. It then proceeded to vanish from view and called again. I felt relieved and touched by luck to see the Cetti's Warbler as not only are they elusive but you don't get them in Scotland at all, so this was a valuable year tick. In fact, it was only the second bird ever that I had managed to see in Britain.

By the time we had checked Herriott's Pool it was getting towards late afternoon and we had agreed with my grandparents that we were going to be back early in the evening. This meant we only had time to check one more part of the Lake, namely the East Shore, where we took a walk to the Bernard King Hide. The East Shore was the most densley wooded part of the Lake, and we had to pass through quite a lot of woodland to get the Bernard King Hide. On the way to the hide I managed to see my first Blackcap of the year, a fine male that made its presence known by calling nearby and then was seen on the top of a tree. Also on the walk to the hide several Willow Warblers were seen and up to 5 Cetti's Warblers were heard calling in the reedbeds. Masses of other birds filled the woods with melodic song, which was lovely to hear and a certain sign of spring. The walk to Bernard King Hide was quite long, and in the end didn't provide too much unfortunately. The best birds were a pair of Goosanders, the first we had seen on the lake.

It was 5:00pm when we returned from our walk to the Bernard King Hide and back. It was time went back to Bristol. It had been a lovely days birding. Not only had I seen one of the rare ducks that I was hoping to see and had great views of it, but I really enjoyed visiting Chew Valley Lake, getting up close to the commoner species and feeling the signs of spring. With Willow Warbler, Sand Martin, Swallow, Lesser Scaup, Raven, Cetti's Warbler and Blackcap all new birds for the year, my year list was now on 138 species. I couldn't have hoped for a more ideal way to start my holiday. So, Chew Valley Lake had turned out to be pretty successful. What next? Where next? That is what I'll be accounting in my next blog post.

Thanks for reading,