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BLAGDON LAKE

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MAP REFERENCES

O.S. Landranger 172 Bristol, Bath & surrounding area 

O.S. Landranger 182 Weston-super-Mare & Bridgwater area

O.S. Explorer 4 Mendip Hills West (south end of site)

O.S. Pathfinder 1182 ST46/56 (north end of site)

O.S. Pathfinder 1198 ST45/55 (south end of site)

INTRODUCTION

Blagdon Lake is actually a reservoir filled in 1903 by damming the Congresbury Yeo.  It is about 440 acres in extent, lying in the fertile valley to the north of the Mendip Hills in the shadow of Black Down.  The primary reason for it's construction was to help supply the expanding city of Bristol with water.  However, it was quickly realised that there was some outstanding trout fishing in the young lake, and today it ranks among the top trout fisheries of the world.  

Needless to say, the new lake quickly became an attraction to wildfowl as well, and it proved to be an important site until becoming somewhat over-shadowed during the late 1950's by neighbouring Chew Valley Lake.  A number of reasons have been suggested for this, not least among which is Chew Valley's larger size.  However, the 'Litton Gap' fly-way over Mendip for north-south migrants, the rounder shape, shallower average depth and extensive reed bed are probably also important factors in Chew's favour.  

Blagdon Lake is long and narrow, with approachable margins, so disturbance by fisherman and other visitors can have more of an impact here.  Nevertheless, the list of birds to be seen at the lake is extensive at any season, and quite frankly, the ambiance and beauty of the place are factors in it's favour  in comparison with Chew as far as I'm concerned.

ACCESS

Annual bird watching permits may be obtained from Chew Valley Lake's Woodford Lodge at (£13) or, day permits (£2.50) may be obtained from the refreshment area by the dam at Chew and bird wardens at either lake (myself included). You should be able to catch one of the Fisheries Wardens who'll sell you a day permit at the Fishing Lodge around 1000hrs, but please allow them to deal with the boat anglers first!

A road runs across the dam between Blagdon and Butcombe villages and allows a reasonable view of the west end of the lake.  There is a public footpath along Butcombe shore accessed from the north end of the dam, leading to a quite beautiful summer meadow at the head of Butcombe Bay.  Access for bird watching is best from the Fishing Lodge, or Top End opposite Ubley Trout Hatchery.  Two hides, at Top End (Ubley) and Home Bay Point (near the Lodge) are available, though in practice only the Top End hide is used by bird watchers and it is here that the bird log is kept.  Permit holders may walk along the south side (private) road all year round, but the north shore is restricted to permit holders during the fishing season only (April-November). Don't forget to look over the gate into Ubley Hatchery where you will see a nut feeder in the winter.

SPECIES TO BE SEEN

I am currently compiling a records database for the lake from which it should be possible to create an accurate species list. At the present time I have accounted for some 225, or so, species and one ought to be able to find fifty or more at any time of year. Inevitably autumn, winter and spring provide the most variety, but summer is not without interest. 

I suppose the lakes main claim to fame will, forever, be the appearance of the first pied-billed grebe seen in the Western Palearctic in 1963 (and later chosen as the emblem of the Bristol Ornithological Club). Great-crested and little grebes are present year round and black-necked grebes have visited the lake for many years, but slavonian and red-necked grebes are only occasional visitors. Cormorants are usually present on the lake and are the source of endless debate with fishermen! They roost in flooded trees on Rugmoor Point, Top End or Bell's Bush. Grey herons are also frequent visitors from long-established heronries nearby. However, the country-wide invasion of little egrets has had little impact at the lake (up to the time of writing), with local records tending to come from Chew Valley Lake. 

A few pairs of mute swan breed, and the post-breeding flock present in July and August may climb above fifty. Tundra (formerly Bewick's) swans often visit in late autumn, though this seems to be getting less frequent in recent years. There is a large flock of Canada geese that frequents the farmland on the south side of the lake around Holt Farm from July to April. This flock sometimes attracts other species in, but the barnacle geese are feral! There has been a long tradition of wildfowl counting at the reservoir (dating back to the 1940's) and Blagdon has provided many local birders with their first glimpses of some of the rarer species. A wintering flock of Eurasian wigeon numbers into three figures and can usually be found at the dam end of the lake. Of the other duck, gadwall and shoveler numbers can each get into three figures in late summer too, though this is dependent on water level and weed growth. Other species, for which the lake is noteworthy, are occasional spring garganey and wintering long-tailed duck, good numbers of goldeneye and a few wintering smew. Goosanders are often present in the winter and it is worth checking through them for red-breasted merganser. Ruddy duck numbers, escapees from Slimbridge during the late 1950's, can build up to five hundred or more, though how long this spectacle will prevail is very much at the tender mercies of the cullers. 

Common buzzards are usually soaring over the surrounding hills and both sparrow hawk and kestrel breed. Passage ospreys and goshawks are seen occasionally, and there won't be many days in summer or autumn when a hobby doesn't visit. Corn crake has long ceased to be the regular visitor it was in the 1920's, but a spotted crake may appear in autumn when the water level is low enough for viewing. Water rail is probably present all year round. Moorhen breed in small numbers but coot numbers can often explode into four figures during the autumn and winter. It seems that they move between the reservoirs and over Mendip to Cheddar en masse. 

Wader numbers are absolutely dependent on water level and passage conditions. Spring sees a steady trickle of common sandpiper dropping in, especially through April on the dam wall, but we usually have to wait to see whether margins are sufficiently exposed during return autumn passage to see if this will act as a draw for other species. It is my view that higher water levels and increased visitor disturbance seems to have reduced numbers in recent years. Rarer species such as buff-breasted and marsh sandpiper have occurred in recent decades, but it has been something of an an event seeing even wood and green sandpiper in the last couple of years! 

The position of the lake close to the coast has benefited us with visits from grey and red-necked phalarope, and the gull numbers seem to be increasing, especially roosting black-headed. Rarer gulls remain just that, with infrequent visits from Mediterranean and little, and single sightings of Iceland and ring-billed. Again, Chew seems to be more of a draw. Terns are passage visitors in small numbers, mainly restricted to common, arctic and black. 

Passerines are well represented in the varying habitat around the lake, though species declining nationally have been hit in much the same way in this area. Yellow-wagtail used to breed but are rarely seen now, even on passage, spotted flycatchers are hanging on and reed bunting numbers are very low. On the plus side, reed warblers have increased and Cetti's warbler has spread from Chew in the last year or two. Crossbill occasionally visit the lakeside larches, and redpoll can often be found, early winter, in the birch trees by The Fishing Lodge. Siskin are also regular most winters, in small numbers, along the alders of the south shore, especially by Top End hide and in Wood Bay. 

The Ubley Hatchery nut feeder regularly attracts nuthatch and great spotted woodpecker. Excellent views may be obtained of these and other species by standing back and quietly watching the feeder from the gate.

TIMING

A walk along the south shore road in spring, especially before fishing gets underway, can be a wonderfully uplifting experience. Blackcaps, chiffchaffs and willow warblers sing their little hearts out! Garden warblers and lesser whitethroats join in later. 

As summer progresses, patient watching will give good views of courting grebes and duck. 

Autumn often provides a surprise find, but it is at the onset of winter and the arrival of the 'whistling' wigeon that I get most pleasure birding at the lake. The fishermen have gone off to tell stories in the local pubs and the birds of the lake are left to their own devices.

RECENT RARITIES

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23rd January 2007 Dark-bellied Brent Goose

4th February 2007 Drake Red-breasted Merganser

11th March 2007 Drake Lesser Scaup

23rd March 2007 Adult Eurasian Greater White-fronted Goose

30th September 2007 Drake Lesser Scaup

30th November 2007 Egyptian Goose

OTHER THINGS OF INTEREST

I don't think any visitor, who is the slightest bit interested in natural science, can fail to be impressed by the show of orchids in the meadows bordering the lake. Especially worthy of mention are the thousands of spikes of green-winged orchids behind the dam in the grounds of the pumping station during late May and into June. Top End has its own show of southern marsh orchids and hybrids in the summer, and there are at least another four species to be found by careful observation. The meadows are especially beautiful at the end of Butcombe Bay and Top End. Carpets of blue devil's-bit scabious, purple hardheads and pink flowering rush keep the interest going throughout the summer. 

Visitors from outside the area can catch up with ruddy darter which appears in big numbers at the lake, along with a host of other species of dragonfly.

Nigel Milbourne

 

(c) Somerset Ornithological Society