BIRD NOTE 6 : GRAVEL PITS

With the continuing decline in numbers of farmland birds much of the interest in birding comes from wetland birds such as waders and wildfowl and in this regard the Nene and Welland valleys have become excellent sites for observation in the last 20-30 years or so. The common feature is the availability and re-use of redundant gravel workings. The lakes at Ferry Meadows were created after Peterborough Development Corporation extracted gravel for the urban parkway network. The Langdyke Trust has within its portfolio the former gravel workings adjacent to the Welland in the Etton-Maxey area where extraction is still taking place to the east. The Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust’s Deeping Lakes Reserve has a much older history as the large,deep lake was the result of extraction by the Great Northern Railway in the late 19th century to provide ballast for its tracks.

The Nene valley in Northamptonshire along the A45 south of Oundle and Thrapston has an extensive chain of former gravel pits and a new reserve has  opened at Irthlingborough Lakes and Meadows, accessed from the back of the Rushden Lakes shopping Centre and managed by the Beds/Cambs/Northants Wildlife Trust which has its reserve office in the shopping centre. The site forms part of the Upper Nene Valley Gravel Pits Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Protection Area (SPA). It is now the focus for some of the Trust’s most important work as part of the Nene Valley Living Landscapes conservation scheme. The Nene valley is one of the most important wetlands in England and has gained international recognition for its significance as a stopover for thousands of wildfowl and waders in winter. On a visit early in November there were good numbers of Lapwing and wildfowl with a few Golden Plover mixing with the former.

Just north of Irthlingborough is Stanwick Lakes which is similar to Ferry Meadows with facilities for other activities too and run by the Rockingham Forest Trust. Another group of wetland birds is the heron family and when we walked round Stanwickmy friends and I had an experience that was not imaginable until quite recently. We saw Little Egret, Great White Egret and Cattle Egret. Little Egrets have been spreading rapidly in recent years and, locally, are a common sight below Uffington Bridge and breed in the region. They first appeared in Britain in significant numbers in 1989 and first bred in the same year in Dorset. Wintering birds in Britain number some 4500. Great Whites have been appearing on Deeping Bank and in the Nene Washes for a few years and only about 35 birds winter in Britain. But Cattle Egrets are a very new addition, first breeding in Somerset in 2008.  As their name suggests, we reliably found three  of them associating with a herd of cattle. 

The RSPB web-site for Cattle Egret gives a figure of only 100 of them in Britain in Winter but  I suspect that figure may need revising as they expand northwards. They range right across the world from the Americas through southern Europe, Africa and Asia and down to Australia. Now they are here in the Nene/Welland wetlands. These two sites are well worth a visit. 

KEITH LIEVESLEY