This article first appeared in the Birmingham (latterly West Midland) Bird Club Report for 1938.
Bird and place names were spelt as shown.
By H. G. Alexander.
The Bittell Reservoirs are canal-feeding reservoirs, situated ten miles south of the centre of Birmingham, just south of the English water-shed, where it separates the Trent from the Avon basin. Strictly speaking, there are only two Bittell Reservoirs, the Upper, which is the more northerly, and covers approximately 100 acres, and the Lower, covering 57 acres. Small parts of the latter are separated from the main water by roads. At a distance of about three-quarters of a mile there is a third sheet of water, of 11 acres, the Cofton reservoir, just under the ridge of the Lickey Hills. These hills separate the Avon valley from the Severn. The reservoirs are all fed by the head waters of the river Arrow.
There are a number of large pools and reservoirs in the counties round Birmingham, and no doubt from time to time all these attract not only wintering duck, but other passing wildfowl. It may be that the main reason why Bittell has so many records of such birds is simply that it has been well watched. But there are other contributory reasons. Both reservoirs are surrounded by open country, and it seems that water birds mostly prefer such places to pools that are surrounded by trees. The immediate surround, on the other hand, is almost all pasture, with hardly any bare concrete, so that it forms good feeding-ground for Wigeon and other species, and after droughts there is sometimes a good extent of mud to attract passing waders. In spring, too, the reservoirs lie not far from the line of flight birds might be expected to take that were flying up the Severn or Avon valleys from the Bristol Channel. But there is no similar geographical feature to bring them in the direction of the reservoirs during the autumn passage. And on the whole the autumn passage does seem to be rather less pronounced than the spring. At any rate in some recent years of "low tide", when considerable numbers of small waders have visited Upper Bittell reservoir in the spring, there has been no movement of corresponding proportions in the autumn. For some reason, Lower Bittell seems at times to be more attractive than Upper in the autumn. This is the more surprising since, in addition to the larger size and larger extent of mud at Upper Bittell, it lies well away from traffic, whereas Lower Bittell has a good road with fairly constant traffic running along three sides. But as a rule the birds are indifferent to the traffic.
Neither reservoir contains reed-beds or any tall cover; so that Reed-warblers do not breed and there are no records of such cover- loving species as the Bittern, except an old record at Cofton, where there is a dense swamp. Great Crested Grebes, though constantly present, have difficulties in nesting, because the water is so open. It is unusual for any to nest on Upper Bittell at all. On Lower the first nesting-attempts nearly always end in failure, but when Polygonum plants grow to the surface of the water in June, the problem of attaching their floating nests without resting them on the ground, where they are liable to get flooded, is less difficult.
These reservoirs have attracted the attention of ornithologists for many years past. Some of the rare birds in the Chase collection in the Birmingham museum are from Bittell. Rev. K. A. Deakin, for many years rector of Cofton Hackett, kept records covering the period from 1860 to 1910. Messrs. H. Ll. Wilson and D. Grubb are among those who frequently visited the reservoirs in pre-war times. More recently they have received very regular weekly visits from Mr. E. St. G. Betts, and Miss C. K. James of Barnt Green has been an even more frequent visitor. A number of other observers go there more or less frequently. Even so, it cannot be doubted that many birds must pass unnoticed, especially in spring, when they are liable to pass on within a few hours or even minutes of their arrival.
For a number of years now the birds have benefited by the protection provided by the Barnt Green fishing-club. There is no public access to Lower Bittell, nor can any self-respecting ornithologist wish it, since the birds can almost always be watched to excellent advantage from the public road. At Upper Bittell a public footpath runs along the north side, but there are now unclimbable locked gates to prevent access from the whole of the eastern shore.
It has not been easy to decide which species to mention in what follows. As far as possible, the list is confined to water-birds, or to those species which are definitely attracted because of the waters of the reservoirs, excluding such species as Warblers and Finches, which find the hedges and the banks round about very attractive at times because of the abundance of insects or seeds.
Hooded Crow. Carrion Crows are regular visitors to the banks of the reservoirs, and sometimes seem to take dead fish or something from the surface. In the autumn of 1921 Hooded Crows visited Upper Bittell and behaved in a similar fashion. One also spent the winter, 1928-9.
Water Pipit. Identified from time to time in autumn, Oct. Nov. and Dec. Also twice in March. Once in Jan. Usually keeps away from the Meadow Pipit, parties of which, feed by the reservoir in autumn.
Wagtails. Pied Wagtails frequent the edges of the reservoirs at all seasons. White Wagtails and Yellow Wagtails appear on the spring migration, in April and May, the former irregularly. Yellow Wagtails also appear in autumn, but at that season the White Wagtail is hardly identifiable. Grey Wagtails have nested from time to time on both reservoirs, but they are more often to be seen beside neighbouring streams rather than by the water's edge.
Reed Warbler. Occasionally seen in May and June.
SedgeWarbler. Breeds in the willows and other bushes by both reservoirs.
Dipper. One rather old record; another, Nov. 1933.
Swallows and Swifts. In the spring the first Swallows and Sand Martins usually appear over the reservoirs in early April. House Martins appear towards the end of the month. At that time and in early May, especially in cool weather, there are often scores of Hirundines to be seen over the water, Swifts are often to be seen hawking over the water in large numbers in the later part of May, and throughout the summer till they depart.
Kingfisher. Often to be seen hovering over the water and then plunging for fish.
Peregrine. Has been seen in autumn several times in the last fifteen years.
Merlin. One frequented Upper Bittell for some weeks in the autumn of 1929.
Osprey. One was seen over Lower Bittell in April, 1883.
Heron. Almost always one or more at Upper Bittell. In late summer the largest numbers occur, sometimes up to 15 or 20. At Lower Bittell they are less frequent.
Bittern. Rev. K. A. Deakin records one shot at Cofton reservoir, in the winter, 1866-7.
Spoonbill. Rev. K. A. Deakin notes:- "Seen a few years ago at Upper Bittell": this seems to have been written in 1907.
Whooper Swan. One record in March, one in May and one in Nov.
Bewick's Swan. Twice in recent years : a herd of 14 in Feb. 1933, and
six at the end of Dec. 1938.
Mute Swans and Canada Geese are both semi-feral species. The former is resident, the latter a frequent visitor.
Grey Lag Goose. Six in Mar. and Apr. 1929.
White-fronted Goose. Fourteen at Lower Bittell, Jan.-Feb. 1935.
Brent Goose. One at Upper Bittell, Dec. 1935-Jan. 1936.
Shelduck. An occasional visitor, usually singly: noted in Feb., Mar., Ap., Aug., Sept. and Dec.
Mallard. Resident. A few pairs breed. In winter sometimes several hundreds occur.
Gadwall. Has been noted twice in Jan., once in Apr., twice in Sept., once in Oct.
Teal. Common in winter, sometimes as many as fifty or sixty; occasionally a pair or two remain through the breeding-season.
Garganey. A few records in Mar., Apr., Sept. and Oct.
Wigeon. A common winter visitor for the past twenty years or more. It is not mentioned by Rev. K. A. Deakin, but this was probably due to an oversight. One seen on May 21st, 1928.
Pintail. Seen in Jan., Apr. (at least three times) and Sept.
Shoveller. Regularly seen in spring (chiefly April):occasionally at other seasons. Breeding records for 1884 and 1898.
Pochard. Regular winter visitor (Oct. to Apr.), sometimes as many as eighty or more. Rarely seen in the summer months.
Tufted Duck. Chiefly a winter visitor, in varying numbers up to fifty or sixty. Usually a few occur in the summer months, but breeding has not been proved.
Scaup. Has been seen in Oct., Nov., Dec., Feb., Mar. and Apr., once for two months in the spring. This bird (a female) apparently came three years in succession.
Golden-eye. Formerly occurred fairly regularly between early Nov. and March. It has become much less frequent since the building of Bartley reservoir, where it is a regular winter visitor. In 1938 four stayed till the beginning of May.
Long-tailed Duck. A male at Lower Bittell, 22nd Oct. 1925.
Common Scoter. Several records in April and May; also in July, Oct., Nov. (twice) and Dec.
Velvet Scoter. A drake, with six Common Scoters, 1st May, 1920.
Goosander. Occurs every winter, usually between middle of Dec. and end of Feb., sometimes up to a dozen, but usually staying only a few days at a time. One stayed till 17th May, 1928.
Red-breasted Merganser. One, Jan. and Feb. 1937.
Smew. Irregular in winter, and only seen in Dec., Jan. and Feb.
Cormorant. An irregular visitor, which has been noted in most months.
Shag. Occurred in Jan. and Oct., 1938, also one old record.
Great Crested Grebe. Nearly always present, except after severe frosts. Much more frequent in mid-winter than ten years ago. The largest numbers, sometimes twenty-five or thirty, occur in late March or early April. Has bred since the 1880's, but is not always successful in its efforts to do so.
Red-necked Grebe. One, Dec. 1921. One, Oct. 1926. Two Jan to Mar. 1937.
Slavonian Grebe. Half a dozen records between Oct. and Feb.
Black-necked Grebe. About the same number of records as the last species, but including Sept. and April.
Little Grebe. A breeding species on the Cofton reservoir, and sometimes on the section of Lower Bittell which is north of the Hopwood Road. Scarce on Upper Bittell.
Great Northern Diver. One, Jan. 1932.
Red-throated Diver. One, Nov.- 1936. Two, Oct. to Dec. 1936.
Grey Plover. Twice in Nov., once in Dec.
Golden Plover. Occasionally seen flying over or round the reservoirs in winter.
Ringed Plover. Fairly regular as a bird of passage, March to June and Aug. to Oct.
Lapwing. Breeds round the reservoirs, and sometimes occurs on the mud in hundreds in the early autumn.
Turnstone. Occurred twice in May, 1929, and again (three birds) May to June, 1938.
Oyster-Catcher. One at Lower Bittell, Aug. 1938.
Ruff. Not infrequent autumn visitor, Aug. and Sept.
Sanderling. Several occurrences in late May; a flock once in July; and once in September.
Dunlin. Has occurred in every month except Jan. and Feb., most frequent in late May when there is good mud.
Curlew-Sandpiper. Several times noted in May, Aug. and Sept.
Little Stint. Once in May, once each in Sept, Oct. and Nov.
Temminck's Stint. One in the Chase Collection is probably from Bittell.
Knot. One record for Aug., three for Sept., and one for Nov.
Common Sandpiper. Frequent on passage, Apr., May, July, Aug. and Sept. Formerly nested, but has not done so for some years.
Green Sandpiper. Irregular autumn visitor, usually in Aug., but sometimes occurring later, and staying till Nov. or Dec.
Wood Sandpiper. One, Aug. 1926.
Redshank. Usually a pair or two try to breed; these arrive in March, and !eave in July. Recently it has occurred much more frequently than formerly in late autumn and winter.
Dusky Redshank. One, Sept 1926; one, May, 1938.
Greenshank. One or two occur most years in autumn, Aug. and Sept. Also in spring, once in April, and three times in May.
Bar-tailed Godwit. Two, May 1935.
Black-tailed Godwit. Two, Aug. to Sept. 1937.
Grey Phalarope. Once in Sept., once in Oct.
Curlew. Seen flying over from time to time, especially in spring. Rarely settles, and when it does seems to prefer the pasture land to the mud.
Whimbrel. One record each for May, June and Aug.
Snipe. A pair or two sometimes nest near the reservoir, but it is chiefly a winter visitor and sometimes plentiful on the autumn migration.
Jack Snipe. Only finds suitable ground when the water is low; then occurs in small numbers from Oct. to Feb.
Black Tern. Fairly frequent in spring, Apr. and May, and early June; also in Aug. and Sept.
White-winged Black Tern. A record for April 1886 lacks confirmatory detail.
Sandwich Tern. Seen twice in April.
Gull-billed Tern. One in Worcester museum is from Bittell, but there seem to be no details.
Common Tern. Probably, an annual visitor, but those that pass in spring stay for a day or two at most, often only an hour or two. Has occurred recently in all months from Apr. to Oct.
Arctic Tern. Several identified in recent years in spring (May and June) and autumn (Sept. and Nov.).
Little Tern. Four records, all in May.
Little Gull. One, 3rd May, 1938.
Black-headed Gull. Occurs in every month, but rarely stays for more than a few days, or, more often, hours at a time. It is not a regular winter visitor.
Common Gull. Chiefly a bird of passage in spring, but some- times appears in autumn and rarely in mid-winter.
Herring Gull. Only four definite records, apart from possible immatures which are, of course, indistinguishable from the next species: in Mar., May, Oct. and Nov.
Lesser Black-backed Gull. Occurs on the northward migration practically every year in March, April or May, and more rarely in the summer and autumn.
Kittiwake. Recorded about a dozen times in the last twenty years, especially during the last few years, when watching has been more systematic. It begins to look as if there may be a regular cross- country migration in Feb. and March; they have also been seen in May, Oct. and Dec. Only the December record was immediately after stormy weather.
Pomarine Skua. Three were seen flying over Upper Bittell on 21st October, 1936; only one was seen to have the twisted tail- feather diagnostic of this species, though all were in adult plumage; however, it seems likely that all were Pomarine.
Water-rail. Frequently noted in winter by or near Cofton reservoir.
Coot. A dozen or more pairs breed. In the winter flocks of a hundred or more sometimes occur.
Guillemot. One seen about 1912.
Ornithology in Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire & the West Midlands county, since 1929.
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