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A history of birding at Grafham Water

by Mark Hawkes

Grafham Water is the third largest area of inland water in England, (surpassed only by Kielder Reservoir (Northumberland) and Rutland Water (Leicestershire). It was created as recently as 1962, when construction of the dam began, but the reservoir was not filled to it's current level until 1966.

Grafham's vast size can be daunting and, in the right weather conditions, it can look like an 'inland-sea'. The reservoir has about 9 miles of shoreline, but most of it is viewable using the cycle-path that circles it.

It's impact on birding in Cambridgeshire has been phenomenal. It is probably the prime site in the county and consistently produces an array of rare and scarce birds. It has even totally changed the status of some species in the county since its creation. But, be warned, as excellent a site as this is, it can be very hard to watch!

Grafham Water is located just west of the A1 between Huntingdon and St. Neots, and is best accessed via the B661 at Buckden. There are four main car parks around the reservoir, but by far the most useful, is Mander car park (TL143672), located just west of Perry village. This car park is closest to the Wildlife Trust Centre (burnt down by vandals in 2003) and the adjoining nature reserve. It is also here that the new fishing lodge can be found, offering a café (open 7 days a week, with excellent food), toilets (including disabled) and an outdoor clothing/fishing tackle shop. From here it is possible to walk around the nature reserve trail. The scrubby areas around the trail have an increasing population of Nightingales, and have recorded Bluethroat (1988) and Firecrest (2002). From the trail it's possible to access four bird hides (two by wheelchair), including Dudney hide (TL137677), which overlooks the main area of the nature reserve and the recently-installed tern raft. The creek is excellent for winter wildfowl, with occasional Smew, scarce grebes and divers and an array of waders during passage periods (depending on the water level). The Cambs record count of Ruddy Ducks (121) was recorded here in January 2002. Rare birds recorded here have included Great White Egret (2002), Ring-necked Duck (1978) and Ferruginous Ducks (1987). Also Britain's third inland Surf Scoter, in 1989, frequented the creek. Bittern has been seen here, and Little Egrets are now annual.

This trail is also the best way to access Littless Wood, a large area of ancient woodland, with a mixture of scrub, conifers and bordering arable land. All common woodland birds breed here, including Marsh Tit and the area has recorded singing Golden Oriole and occasional passage Common Redstarts.

Just east of Perry are the Lagoons. Access is, by rights, restricted due to work by Anglian Water. The area has great potential for waders, but the sandy filter beds rarely attract more than the common waders, although Marsh Sandpiper (1979) and Black-winged Stilt (1965) have occurred. The area holds breeding Water Rail, Grasshopper Warblers and Ruddy Ducks bred in 2002. It is excellent for wintering Teal and Shoveler. Jack Snipe are probably regular in winter (but there is NO access down to the pools) where Spotted Crake has been recorded three times. The areas of scrub around the lagoons are excellent for passage migrants with records of Red-backed Shrike (1981, 1982) Great Grey Shrike (1997), Wood Warbler, Ring-necked Parakeet and Firecrest (all in 2002). Bearded Tit and Water Pipit were once annual, but are now very rare; Stonechats and Ring Ouzels however favour this area. The northern edge of the lagoons gives a good view over the centre of the reservoir.

The east end of the reservoir is accessed from either Plummer car park (TL163666) or Marlow car park (TL167681). The creek off Plummer car park also holds good numbers of wildfowl and occasional waders. It is possible to follow cycle path around the reservoir, and along the top (or bottom) of the dam to obtain extensive views over the reservoir. The Dam is the prime area for waders, with regular sightings of Dunlin, Common Sandpipers and annual Sanderlings, Turnstones and Little Stints. Rarities have included Least Sandpiper (1983). Grafham Water is also the Purple Sandpiper hotspot (9 records) with both Red-necked and Grey (Red) Phalaropes occurring here in 2001. It is also the most reliable site in Cambridgeshire for Rock Pipits , with Snow Buntings being occasional and Twite rare. The deep water areas are excellent for diving birds, with sometimes hundreds of Great Crested Grebes together, small groups of scoters (mostly Common Scoter) and both Red-throated and Great Northern Divers in 2002 and a drake Long-tailed Duck in May 2004.

The north shore is best accessed using Hill Farm car park (TL148694); this is located at the end of minor road running west from Grafham village. From here it is around 2/3-mile walk west to the new hide at Savages Creek (TL135690). The creek holds large numbers of common wildfowl and is the best area for Smew around the reservoir. Unfortunately, due to its south facing origin, the viewing is best either early or late in the day. The extensive woodland along north shore is good for common birds, with several Common Buzzards resident recently and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker occasional.

The Water Tower, viewed from Hill Farm. Note the Shag on the steps on the bottom left of the tower!

The main reservoir itself can be viewed from any of the above areas, although Mander car park and the Dam continually produce the best birds. The reservoir has an unparalleled track record for inland seabirds, including Sooty Shearwater and Little Auk (1988), Leach's Petrel (1979, 1983, 1985, 1991, 2002) Storm Petrel (2000), Pomarine Skua (1976, 1985, 1987, 1991). The site also has occasional Manx Shearwaters, Arctic and Great Skuas, Fulmar, Gannet, Brent Geese and all the seaducks, including Velvet Scoter.

The reservoir is attracting a reputation as one of the best sites in England to see inland Common Scoters. They are annual and occur throughout the year, with some making protracted stays. Terns are another feature of the reservoir. Common Terns are present in large numbers in passage periods and up to 200 Arctic Terns have been recorded together, but small numbers are more usual. Both Little and Sandwich Terns are almost annual, but Black Terns are always present during passage, with up to 400 recorded in record years. Rare terns have included Roseate (1976, 1977), Caspian (1982, 1991), Whiskered (1977, 1979) and White-winged Black (1976, 1981, 1991, 1993 and two in 2000).

The reservoir can be great for gull watching, usually from Mander car park, the Lagoons, or Plummer car park, but they can be distant. In mid-winter it is likely that 30,000+ gulls roost here, and increased coverage has recently uncovered regular Mediterranean, Iceland and Glaucous Gulls. Little Gulls occur throughout the year, and the site also holds the record for the highest number of Yellow-legged Gulls in Cambridgeshire, with Caspian Gulls now being annual. Sabine's Gulls have been recorded very rarely, with up to 10 occurring during the 1987 storm. Grafham also lays claim to the first Ring-billed Gull in Cambridgeshire (1991).

Raptors are not well represented around the reservoir, but Ospreys are annual, with some lingering and Hobbies are regular throughout the summer. Rough -legged Buzzard has been recorded twice (1994, 2001) and Honey Buzzards are very occasional visitors. Montagu's Harrier has been recorded only twice (1994, 1995), with Marsh and Hen Harriers being very scarce passage migrants, mainly moving up the Ouse Valley and viewed from the Dam. Red Kites, in line with increasing British populations, particularly in neighbouring Northamptonshire are becoming more regularly observed. Similarly, Common Buzzards are regularly seen. All five owls occur, with Long-eared Owl occasionally breeding.

Other rare birds recorded at Grafham include Blue-winged Teal (1969), Green-winged Teal (1965, 1995), Corncrake (1956), Pratincole sp. (1984), Stone Curlew (1982), Buff-breasted Sandpiper (1975, up to 3), Kentish Plover (1967, 1968), Pectoral Sandpiper, Wilson's Phalarope (1984), Wryneck, Shorelark (1969, 1970), Lapland Bunting and Richards Pipit (1974), but the site has a reputation for producing the most unexpected and every visit can be different, strangely Red-headed Bunting and Marbled Duck were both recorded within a month in 1976!


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