West Midland Bird Club

H. G. Alexander - 70 Years of Birdwatching

West Midand Reservoirs

This is a chapter from H. G. Alexander's ornithological autobiography, "Seventy Years of Birdwatching". Bird and place names were spelt as shown.

Horace Alexander was a founder member of our Club.


West Midland Reservoirs

The years between the two great wars might be described as the years of reservoirs and sewage-farms, so far as British field ornithology is concerned. If anyone ever undertakes a serious research into the development of field studies among British birdwatchers, they may push the discovery of both reservoirs and sewage-farms further back. The Cheshire meres were famous for their birds far beyond the bounds of Cheshire; the Frensham ponds, in south-west Surrey, were visited by my Crosfield uncles before this century began ; and we were taken there as soon as we were old enough for such long walks. I have an idea that Julian Huxley also visited them when he was a boy. Not all the modern reservoirs have such good herbage to provide cover, but those that feed canals, dating back to the early nineteenth century, had mostly developed reed-beds or other good cover at their shallow ends by the beginning of this century , or even a good deal earlier. Presumably they only began to attract birdwatchers when the telescope and the binocular began to replace the gun, and this means the end of the nineteenth century or the beginning of the twentieth.

The attractiveness of the old-fashioned sewage-farm with its extensive muddy settling beds for migrating waders came later. Probably Norman Joy of Reading first made this discovery, when he began to report the remarkable waders (including four Stilts), hitherto only known as birds of coastal marshes and mudflats, that he had found on an unnamed 'marsh' near Reading. Later in the same year (1923) he revealed that this was Reading sewage-farm. The most attractive sewage-farms, such as Northampton and Nottingham, and some of those near London, were only discovered in the late twenties or early thirties. But why did we regularly visit Tunbridge Wells sewage-farm in 1910 and even earlier? It had no alluring settling tanks; but it was a good place for birds if one was content with the commoner species. In my first two years at Cambridge I did not know that the sewage-farm there was worth visiting, even though I walked round the adjacent Chesterton ballast-pits sometimes. Then someone told me that a Grey Phalarope had been seen on the sewage-farm, so I began to go there, and found that Norman Ticehurst had known it and visited it from time to time in his day, ten or fifteen years earlier. But the fact is that the larger sewage-fields, which attracted waders at a later date, only came into being after my time. Lack, in his Birds of Cambridgeshire (1934), hardly gives any sewage-farm records before 1927. By 1934 he was able to record that 152 species had been recorded at the sewage-farm and adjacent ballast-pits; this he compares with 132 at Reading sewage-farm in the ten years from 1922 to 1932. No other sewage-farm is mentioned.

My first visit to Upper Bittell reservoir, north Worcestershire, was in early October 1906. The reservoir was already known to local bird- watchers, but when I came to compile a list for the two Bittell reservoirs in the late twenties (1929) I was only able to get a small number of specific records for the earlier years. Most of what I published was based on my own observations, which were systematic (or at least frequent) from 1919.

One day in the late twenties I had my first day in the field with T. A. Coward. I took him round Upper Bittell reservoir. While we were there he asked me if I had ever explored some large reservoirs in Staffordshire, near Watling Street. He had heard of them recently from his friend and neighbour, Arnold Boyd; but Coward thought they must be nearer to me than they were to Boyd in north Cheshire.

I paid my first visit to Belvide reservoir, which is generally a more exciting bird place than the nearby Gailey Pools, a year or two later, when I had a car to drive. It was a day in early spring, at the beginning of April. Before I was turned away by the waterman (who became my close friend in later years-he was a Cumbrian, who had grown up among the mountains of Lakeland, and he had a directness of speech that I enjoyed) I had seen a crowd of Sand Martins over the water and found both Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler in the copse by the reservoir, whilst the ducks on the water seemed to include all that one could reasonably hope for: Goosanders, Goldeneye, Garganey and numbers of the commoner species. I wrote about this to Duncan Wood, then still at school, and commented: 'It seemed to be rather a good place.' He quoted this understatement back to me on our expeditions there in later years.

One thing became clear to me very early. As the Bittell reservoirs are just under the ridge of the Lickey Hills, far from any river, they do not seem to attract passing migrants in any numbers. Belvide, although it too is near the watershed of England, is in low, nearly flat, country, and birds coming up the Severn valley and continuing north where the Severn bears west might well be attracted to this large lake. Whatever the explanation may be, it is undoubtedly true that Belvide does attract numbers of the early migrants passing north. In all my years of observation at Bittell I believe I never found a March Sand Martin; Belvide can be almost relied on to have them at almost any date after 20th March, and sometimes earlier.

Bittell was not nearly as attractive to strange birds as the larger Staffordshire reservoirs. However, frequent visits over a period of twenty years gave me some surprises. Except in seasons when the water was low and a good deal of mud was exposed, waders were scarce there; but you could never be sure. My two most surprising waders both turned up in 1940, a year of quite high water: a Kentish Plover on 15th July, from its plumage evidently a bird of the year; and on 31st October of the same year a Purple Sandpiper. During these twenty years I never saw a Wood Sandpiper at Bittell.

On a day of high north-westerly wind, 2Ist October 1936, as John Stephens and I were approaching the reservoir from the farm on the hill to the north, three large dark birds came over our heads, then flew round over the reservoir and soon disappeared to the south. We saw at once that they were skuas, but which species? Luckily one of the three showed the typical twisted tail feathers of a Pomarine. All were in adult plumage and all appeared to be the same size, so presumably all were Pomarine.

In 1939 I contributed a short paper on the birds of Bittell to the annual report of the Birmingham Bird Club (now West Midland Bird Club). This was my summary of the background of knowledge of the reservoirs and their birds. 'Rev. K. A. Deakin, for many years Rector of Cofton Hackett, kept records covering the period from 1860 to 1910. Messrs H. Lloyd Wilson and D. Grubb are among those who frequently visited the reservoirs in pre-war [i.e. before 1914] times.' It would be interesting to know what happened to the Deakin records. How did the birds in 1870 compare with the birds to be seen there in 1970?

Practically all the British ducks occurred at one time or another during my twenty years, except for the Eider. Of the surface feeding ducks, Pintail and Gadwall were much the scarcest. I was only able to give six records of Gadwall and five of Pintail in the course of nineteen years' observation up to 1938. Scoters appeared surprisingly often, in both spring and autumn. The first time I took Wilfrid to the Bittell reservoirs, on 1st May 1920, when he had just returned (temporarily) from Australia, we found a party of six Common Scoters and a drake Velvet Scoter, the only one of this species I ever saw at Bittell and the first he had seen in his life. Goosanders and Smew were much less reliable as winter visitors than they were on the larger Staffordshire reservoirs. In 1938 I was only able to give one record of a Red- breasted Merganser, and one of a Long-tailed Duck. All five grebes had appeared, but Red-necked only three times.

When we look at the status of the gulls in those days, there really are some surprises. Although I had recorded Black-headed Gulls in every month of the year, I stated emphatically, 'It is not a regular winter visitor.' In later years it has surely become that; but just when? Herring Gulls, too, were quite scarce, with only four definite records of adult birds; immature Herring Gulls are of course rarely separable from immature Lesser Black-backs, a species which in those days (as it still is) was a regular passage migrant across the Midlands in some numbers, and so was by far the commoner bird. Herring Gulls began to winter at industrial tips and to roost on some of the reservoirs before I left the Midlands, I suppose in the late forties or fifties. I had no record of a Great Black-back at Bittell in those days, though I had seen them at Westwood Park, Droitwich, and also at Belvide. The status of the Kittiwake at Bittell was perhaps as surprising as anything. What I wrote in 1937 may stand: '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.'

Looking through the West Midland reports for the past ten years when at least ten times, perhaps twenty times, the number of observers have been involved, I note that Kittiwakes have been recorded in the West Midlands every year, but rarely at Bittell. Indeed, the only Bittell records for these later years are the following: one in December 1961; one in November 1962; one in March 1963; one in February and one in September 1965; and, from 1966 to 1970 inclusive, none at all. On these slight figures there would seem to be some support for my idea of a cross-country migration in February and March; but there is little additional support if all the other records from the three West Midland counties are taken together. All the records for the ten years give the following results month-wise: January 5; February 6; March 7; April 4; May 4; June 1; July 0; August 11; September 4; October 4; November 6; December 9. There is very little to indicate which of these were seen just after severe storms, though this is referred to once or twice. Thus, the one record of a good-sized flock, between 25 and 30, is from Cannock reservoir, on 5th November 1967, after a strong north-west gale (this inevitably reminds me of the three skuas at Bittell on 21st October 1936). I am inclined to think, however, that there are sufficient annual records of Kittiwake appearances in the West Midlands to indicate that, every year, some cross the country on normal migratory flights, which is somewhat unexpected in such a maritime species. I also noted that most of my records of Scoters on Midland pools seemed to be quite unconnected with storms. Again, somewhat unexpected.

A few of the Kittiwake records are of birds that were obviously ailing or even of dead birds (the only time, as far as I recall, that I took Bernard Tucker to the reservoirs, we found a dead Kittiwake). Do maritime birds that are ailing tend to fly inland to die? That they should seek the land, if they are out at sea, seems reasonable; but I can see no reason why an ailing bird should fly a hundred or more miles inland.

When I was young, that is, sixty years ago, any gull seen inland was alleged to be 'storm-driven', though I have no doubt that the passage across the country of Lesser Black-backs is a very old phenomenon. But when Norman Joy first found the passage of waders at Reading sewage-farm he was discovering that gulls also frequently cross the centre of England, and that was something new. In his second article he appealed to observers to visit their local sewage-farms in the next year (1924) to see if they found the same passage in other places. There is little evidence that many did this. As I have said, the discovery of the riches of Northampton and Nottingham, and later of some other such farms, came some years later; indeed, I think Wilfrid may have been one of the first to visit Northampton, when he began to explore from Oxford in and after 1931. How different the picture is today!

Let me compare the records of terns in the Midlands today with the few we recorded year by year in the 1930s. It would be too tedious to give the results statistically, but Common, Arctic and Black Terns are recorded in numbers in the West Midland bird reports every year now; yet I recall that in about 1930 Witherby, having received a report of a Black Tern one spring from a West Midland pool, asked me if it was sufficiently unusual to be worth publishing in British Birds. I could only reply that I knew of very few spring records. As I look through the recent reports of the West Midland Bird Club, I find that in both 1966 and 1970 quite a heavy spring passage of Black Terns was observed, with records from many pools and reservoirs in the three counties; but in 1970 none was seen in spring at Bittell, and in 1966 the only observation was of four on 1st May. In other years single birds were recorded in spring. It may be that for some reason Bittell attracts them less than some neighbouring pools-and I do not only mean the large Staffordshire reservoirs. Indeed, what I wrote in 1936 still seems appropriate: 'Fairly frequent in spring, Apr. and May and early June; also in Aug. and Sept.' It is even possible that Bittell is no more frequently visited by people looking for birds than it was in the 1930s. The great differences today are that the big Staffordshire reservoirs are visited by bird-spotters at least five times as often (five is a guess); and a dozen pools in all three counties are frequently visited today which either did not exist or were quite unknown as birding haunts in those days.

The one generalisation that can now be made with assurance is that any good-sized pool or sewage-farm in any part of Midland England, whether near a river valley or not, will certainly attract plenty of birds of passage from time to time, waders, terns, gulls, ducks and others. Nor is this simply due to the fact that England is a small country with sea-coast a bare hundred miles away wherever you are. Watchers at such inland continental places as Geneva or Delhi have found that migrating seabirds turn up not infrequently, and not only after storms.

Text reproduced by kind permission of A&C Black Publishers Ltd; images by kind permsision of Robert Gillmor.