Late January saw me on yet another excellent day trip by coach organised by the Marylebone Birdwatching Society (MBS). This was my second visit to Abberton Reservoir, which is around 11 kilometres (7 miles) from Colchester a city in the county of Essex in the Southeast of England. Abberton Reservoir has an excellent visitor centre managed by the Essex Wildlife Trust and it was pleasing to see that it is patronised by young families as well as serious birders and photographers. Being so close to Colchester which has a train station, I would imagine it is reasonably easy to visit using a combination of public transport and pre-booked taxi. I had the advantage that I was on an organised birding coach trip that left Embankment in the centre of London and took me to the reserve and back. Furthermore, it was at a very reasonable price as the coach trips organised for Londoners by the MBS and the RSPB Central London Local Group are run at close to cost.

I enjoyed my second visit even more as a result of an excellent article in the journal British Birds in their ’Great bird reserves’ series (British Birds, November 202, Volume 114, pages 686 to 704). I took my copy of the BB on the coach tip and on the journey read the article by Chas Holt, Kim Wallis, Maurice Durham, Graham Ekins, Richard Hearn and Roy King. I will borrow from this article to supplement my first hand observations.

Abberton Reservoir is divided into three sections, the sectioning performed by two motorable causeways which also provide access to birdwatchers who park their vehicles on the causeways. The Western Section, is the smallest and has the most natural boundaries with reed beds and water loving trees such as Willow on the margins. The western section of the Central Section, also has natural, soft borders on two sides with hard edges formed by the two causeways, Layer Breton on the west and Layer de la Haye on the east. Our trip leader suggested we first drive up to Layer Breton on the coach and view the Western and Central Sections from the causeway and then drive and park at the visitor centre from where it is a few minutes walk to the Layer de la Haye causeway which allows viewing onto the Main Reservoir. A quick look on Google Maps will help the reader to orientate with what I have written above.

Before getting onto the birding, it is worth saying something about the voluntary birding trip leaders who make them possible. London is of course a great City. Much of its greatness rests on its ability to find people who can excel in different disciplines and provide leadership in both paid and voluntary roles. Andrew Peel, our leader for the day is a good example. Technical skills, together with good people skills and the ability maintain composure when weather or other circumstances are adverse are the hallmarks of a good leader. People like Andrew who volunteer to lead bird watching trips for groups such as the MBS, RSPC CLLG and the London Bird Club (a section of the London Natural History Society) are essential for the smooth running of these societies. The presence of these groups and many other such groups, makes London one of the best places in the world for anyone wishing to develop their field skills as a naturalist. I am often contacted by young people who are looking to develop their careers in conservation and I tell them that participating in the field events of these groups would be a good first step in their skillls development.

The Western and Central Section of the reservoir held many wintering ducks. Three species were particularly noteworthy. Firstly, there were over a hundred Shoveler in view. The males had already donned their breeding plumage. Most ducks by late January are in breeding plumage unlike other birds which are still in winter plumage. When other birds are at their best in summer, ducks are looking drab, having undergone what is called a full moult where they have even shed all of their flight feathers. A full moult leaves them vulnerable to predators. Reserve managers at sites such as Abberton take this into account in their management plans and provide reedbeds and groves of willows where moulting birds can roost in safety hidden from predators. Reading the BB article, I learnt how at Abberton as part of its conversion to a nature reserves, 12 kilometres of concrete apron had been ripped up and the edges re-profiled to meet the habitat requirements at different times of the year for different species. Another important change was to change the depth gradient. Most concrete reservoirs have sharp, deep edges. Deep water may suit certain species such as diving ducks. But for dabbling ducks and wading birds which have legs of different heights, gently sloping edges are best to maximise the diversity of species. Even better if there are sections of damp grassland bordering the reservoirs. I will return to this point later.

The second duck that was of interest was a female Smew, also known as a ‘red head’ as the females have a red head unlike the males which are smartly attired in black and white. Smews breed in Scandinavia and Northern and Eastern Siberia. They are hole-nesting bird, often using nests of Black Woodpeckers. Only a couple of hundred Smews winter in Britain, typically close to the coastline in East Anglia and South-east England. This always make them a popular bird to look out for during winter birding trips to sites such as Abberton and Dungeness. The third duck of interest was another ‘sawbill’, the Goosander. Sawbills have serrated bills which help them to catch fish by providing an improved grip. Gulls often flock around hunting sawbills in the hope of stealing fish. I did in fact later in the day observe this with a flock of gulls containing Black-headed and Common Gulls that had gathered around a male Goosander. The Western Section and the Central Sections each held a few female Goosanders. They are similar to the females of the Red-breasted Goosander in having red heads. The easiest distinction is that the Goosander females have the red sharply demarcated from the rest of the white neck towards the bottom of the neck which joins the breast. Unlike the Smew, the Goosander breeds in Northern England and Scotland. ‘The RSPB Handbook of British Birds’ authored by Peter Holden and Tim Cleeves is an excellent source of reference for delving into the facts. From the third edition I learnt that Scotland and England has 2,600 breeding pairs, but in winter 16,000 may be present. The majority of wintering birds in the UK are birds that breed in the Arctic Circle but have flown south for the winter.

Our next stop was the visitor centre managed by the Essex Wildlife Trust. This was one of their discovery centres with toilets, shop and a café with a good amount of seating indoors and outdoors in a veranda. The Centre also has outdoor areas for childrens activities. They also provision a number of bird feeders which can be viewed from the verendah or from a window seat whilst having coffee and cake. What could be better? Whilst the rest of the group headed off to view birds from the Layer de la Haye causeway, I indulged in a mug of of hot coffee and photographed the birds at the feeders. There was nothing rare, but as a photographer I never tire of getting god views of even relatively common birds such as Robin, Dunnock, Blue Tit and Chaffinch. Good close up views of birds like the Goldfinch remind me of what a spectacular bird it is. A dazzling gold bar on its wings and a patch of red splashed on the front if its head around the beak, with areas of black and white behind it.

I walked along the reservoir and was now more conscious of the profiling that may have been undertaken. I saw three or arguably four types of ducks. Diving ducks such as the sawbills (Goosanders), diving ducks such as Pochards and Tufted Ducks, dabbling ducks such as Gadwall, Teal and Wigeon. The Wigeon is a species of grazing duck, a kind of avian cow that feeds on grasses and other vegetation on the waters edge. The dabbling ducks like shallow margins or shallow waters which form an invertebrate soup they can sieve through. Wide, shallow margins meant that I could see Gadwall and Teal feeding together by the reservoir margins. The gently sloping edges provided habitat for waders of various leg length and bill length. I could see Northern Lapwings, Black-headed Godwit, Common Redshank and Dunlin. The birds here are somewhat habituated by the regular whoosh of passing traffic and foot traffic on the causeway above them. I was able to get excellent close views of a small party of three Dunlin in winter plumage. Two female Goosanders on the Central Section were fishing close to the causeway and did not seem to mind me observing them. Just a few meters away, on the other side of the causeway on the Main Reservoir, was a single male Goosander being followed by a flock of gulls. It too did not seem to mind me and I managed to get some fairly close photographs.

I caught up with the rest of the birding group at one of the viewpoints south of the reservoir where we had distant views of a pair of Marsh Harriers. We then returned to the visitor centre for a break and followed a trail that took us to more hides. We watched lines of Goldeneye, another diving duck. Around 200 breed in Scotland, but in winter 25,000 winter in the Uk arriving from Scandinavia and Northern Europe. Sites such as Abberton are very important for wintering waterbirds and it is a Ramsar site as well as a Specially Protected Area (SPA). The interventionist management has increased its importance as a refuge for birds. However, I read in the BB paper, that the numbers of wintering waterfowl in Britain may be decreasing as high northern latitudes experience less cold winters due to global warming. The BB paper had other interesting information which led me to look at birds in a different light. Its long term ringing programme has resulted in a number of UK longevity records. For example Eurasian Wigeon (34 years), Common {Pochard (22 years), Gadwall (21 years) and Eurasian Teal (18 years). It made me have even greater respect for the teachings of the Buddha who over two thousand years ago preached against the wanton killing of other living things. Should not a Wigeon who can live for 34 years not have the same right to live on this planet as us without fear of being shot by sport shooters for fun? Even more damaging is the human impact on wild landscapes that render them unsuitable for long living plants and animals. Another outcome of the ringing carried out at Abberton are the records of dispersal. It shows that Teal disperse widely across Europe. One Tufted Duck ringed in Abberton was shot in Pakistan nearly 6,00km away.

The MBS group saw 72 species of birds in around five hours spent in the field, which is a good tally for a day’s birding in Britain at a single site. Thanks to the BB paper, I also came away with a much deeper appreciation of the conservation and outstanding research work that has been carried out at Abberton often by small dedicated groups of volunteers. It also reinforces in my mind that why despite what seems to be more information that I can deal with alongside a busy day job, I should maintain my subscription to the journal British Birds as there is no substitute for excellent papers landing on the door mat to be earmarked for future reference.

Useful information

A number of groups in London organise a range of bird-watching and other nature walks as well as day trips by coach or by using public transport to sites further afield from London. Three groups which are especially suited for residents and visitors in Central London are the London Natural History Society, Marylebone Birdwatching Society and the RSPB Central London Local Group.

For visiting nature reserves in London, see also the websites of the London Wildlife Trust and London Wetland Centre. For nature based activities for children and adults in a Central London Park, see the website of the Holland Park Ecology Centre.