UK 2019 Day 7: Birding Day at Chew Valley Lake

Posted July 5, 2019

May 15, 2019

My first proper “birding day” was about 1/2 the day spent at a reservoir called Chew Valley Lake [map]. I had a chance to scout it out briefly on the way back from one of our previous day’s adventures, and it looked promising.

View of a lake with a tree covered island in the middle ground.
Chew Valley Lake.

Chew Valley Lake is named as a premiere birding spot in several places online, and it did not disappoint. The species diversity was high and added a sizable amount to my life list, as you might imagine.

The lake fills part of Chew Valley, forming a reservoir that provides much of the drinking water for Bristol and nearby locales.

View looking down a low dam with lake to the left and roadway to the right.
The dam along Wally Lane demarks the northern edge of the lake.

The morning started off cold, with temperatures around 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.5 Celsius), but the sun warmed things up nicely as the day progressed. I walked along the dam first, but there was no public access around the west side of the lake from there.

White-Wagtail_01
One of several White Wagtails around the lake.

There are well defined trails and paths around the lake and adjacent woodland, some with boardwalks, and a couple of wildlife blinds to make access to some of the shier birds a little easier. Unfortunately, this did not keep the Tufted Ducks from being skittish. I was unable to get any photographs even though I had targeted this species  before leaving for the trip.

Chew-Valley-Lake_03
Much of the path around the north side of the lake has a high bank separating the path from the nearby road.

Although the Tufted Ducks may have been skittish, other water birds were not. I saw several Great Crested Grebes, a few Common Shelducks, and several dozen Eurasian Coots. There were also plenty of Mallards, Canada Geese, and a pair of Mute Swans.

close up of grebe swimming on surface of the water
Great Crested Grebe

The southern eastern and southern edges of the lake have areas of thick reeds and some scrub vegetation. There areas had active and vocal birds, like Reed Warblers, Eurasian Wrens, and Reed Buntings.

Small songbird perched in a bush.
A Reed Bunting making a brief appearance out of the reed bed.

The Eurasian Wrens have a loud song, for their size. The song is very reminiscent of a Song Sparrow here in North America, so it was confusing at times to orient my ears to what kind of bird I should be looking at.

Tiny wren perched among foliage.
A Eurasian Wren pausing between songs. Tiny body, mighty sound!

Similarly, the Eurasian Blackcaps and European Robins have some sounds in common and have thrush-like calls, which was confusing as there were typically Eurasian Blackbirds nearby.

Songbird singing within shaded branches.
Eurasian Blackcap male. The females and young have brown caps.

Eurasian coots were scattered out all over the lake close to the shore. I wondered if they form large rafts during the winter, like American coots do. Eurasian Coots are smaller and a bit more streamlined.

Close-up of a coot swimming on water's surface
Eurasian Coot.

Near one of the wildlife blinds, I heard a prolonged and rollicking song in the understory, and spent many minutes trying to get eyes on the bird. I managed a sound recording to use later for identification, but soon after the bird finally did pop into view. Many of the various warblers that live in these habitats are similar looking, and as they are all new to me, I thought having that recording along with my visual would help me nail it down.

According to descriptions of Melodious Warbler songs, “my” bird fit the bill (haha). It is said to have a prolonged song with many doublets and repeated phrases, similar to a Northern Mockingbird. Its song also has elements that sound like House Sparrows. To my ear, this is what I heard and recorded. I duly noted the (rare) bird on my eBird app and continued on.

I reached the end of the trail on the east side of the lake, where the woods abutted some agricultural land. I spooked a large raptor that I couldn’t identify, and then watched as a Eurasian Treecreeper worked its way up a few trees. All the while, more wrens, blackcaps, blackbirds, and robins were singing. I doubled back along the east side of the lake on a more wooded path running parallel to the way I came, which kept me out of the sun. Even 18 degrees Celsius (65 Fahrenheit) can feel hot after a few hours of hiking.

Dirt path with taller trees to the left and some grass and brush to the right.
Woodland path around Chew Valley Lake.

I made my way back around to the north side of the lake. My intention was to relocate the Tufted Ducks and perhaps catch a Common Merganser or two near the dam. I did manage to flush out a couple of Common Sandpipers and Shelducks as I approached the spillway.

Common-Shelduck_01
This Common Shelduck headed off the spillway outlet towards the middle of the lake like he was on a mission.

A few finch-like birds were singing and flying among the small trees alongside it. It took some sleuthing and confirming later that evening, but managed to identify both as immature males, one a Eurasian Linnet and the other a Black Redstart.

Eurasian-Linnet_01
Although not in bright breeding plumage, I think this Eurasian Linnet was a male because it was singing its heart out.

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Another small songbird perched on a young tree's branch.
Black Redstarts are common birds in the UK, but it took me quite a while, and in some cases outside expertise to identify them. Local knowledge and experience are invaluable in birding.

By this point I was nearing the end of my morning and ready to meet up with my wife and Ruth who had been visiting shops and sites back in Bristol. By the trail head near the dam, I waited at a higher, wooded spot and watched a few European Goldfinches dart in and out of the trees, nearby.

European-Goldfinch_01
This European Goldfinch was last bird of the adventure at Chew Valley Lake.

I walked a total of about 9 km (about 5.5 miles) and had nearly run out of water as my ride showed up and we rode back to Bristol. My species count was 37, and you can see my eBird list below.

https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S56302558

View of a lake with tree reflections on the far shore.
Good bye, Chew Valley Lake.

Addendum

Astute readers will see that my eBird list has only 36 species. After arriving back home in the States, I received an email from an eBird reviewer in the UK, asking about my Melodious Warbler identification. I had posted my sound recording as supporting material. He said my recording was a Reed Warbler and would I please change my list. I have done so, but solely on the idea that a local birder would/should know more and have more experience with the birds I saw and heard. But I’ll link to the sound file below, and if any experienced UK birders can confirm or question the current identification as a Reed Warbler, I’d love to hear from you.

4 thoughts on “UK 2019 Day 7: Birding Day at Chew Valley Lake

  1. I was in a similar situation, but without the necessary supporting evidence, when I saw two Yellow Wagtails in London… an ebird reviewer (a Leicester professor it turns out) contacted me to say I had in fact seen Grey Wagtails, as all the Yellow Wagtails had hitherto emigrated. Hmmm.

  2. That said, I agree with the ebird reviewer that it was likely a Reed Warbler.

    In my years of birding the UK, I don’t remember a single instance of a local Melodious Warbler observation. One source suggests as few as 30 are identified in the UK every year. That’s not to say it’s impossible, but given the circumstances, I would presume Reed or Sedge Warbler were more likely.

  3. If I am ever in doubt, I initially turn to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) website… here’s links to the Reed Warbler and Sedge Warbler entries for you to see for yourself:
    https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/reed-warbler/
    https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/sedge-warbler/
    including audio recordings from the inestimable resource that is xeno-canto.org. N.b. they don’t have a listing for Melodious Warblers.

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