See cormorant, little egret, teal, snipe and heron on a walk around Suffolk Wildlife Trust's Lackford Lakes nature reserve
Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop's Stortford...
As mentioned in my last article, I broke with the regular five-mile distance from the town for my Nature Notes column and headed to Suffolk to report from the marvellous Suffolk Wildlife Trust (SWT) reserve at Lackford Lakes.
It's easy enough to find, up the M11, onto the A11 and then the A14. At the roundabout near Mildenhall, take the A1101 towards Bury St Edmunds and the reserve can be found on the left after West Stow village.
I had set off at 7am in fog and the light was still dreadful upon parking at the reserve just after 8am. A huge flock of 100-plus siskins disappeared into an alder tree near the visitors' centre as I wrapped up against the morning chill. I headed towards one of the many hides to be found here: Bernard's Hide. This vantage point is named after Bernard Tickner, who basically was responsible for establishing the reserve when he purchased some land from Ready Mix Concrete in the 1980s. He continued to buy land and bequeath it to SWT, most recently in 2017 when, at the age of 93, he wrote out a cheque for £100,000 to buy the latest part of the reserve, which is now called Sayer's Breck. Bernard was head brewer and director at the Greene King brewery and it was he who devised the recipe for their famous Abbot Ale.
I settled down in the hide and, through the very grey light, there was plenty to record and attempt to photograph. Both little egrets and grey herons were close by whilst out on the water were big numbers of teal, several wigeon and shovelers, greylag geese and black-headed gulls. I checked the muddy areas for any waders and eventually came up with several snipe, probing the ground for invertebrates.
A good start as I continued along well-marked tracks that make up three separate trails which are all clearly shown on a map outside the visitors' centre. As well as offering good views over the flooded gravel pits, these paths wind through mature tree stands where great, blue and long-tailed tits flitted through the canopy. Both nuthatch and treecreeper were heard but remained unseen. Everywhere there seemed to be very confident robins. One in particular flew straight at me, perched so close that I had to walk backwards to get a photo as I was too close. This didn't work as the robin kept following me, almost alighting upon my boots. Jays lazed their way over the tree tops and into mature oaks, magpies argued and a large skein of greylags arrived on Plover Lake, most vociferous upon landing.
I wandered around to Bess's Hide, named after Bernard's wife who passed away 10 years before him in 2007. On visits here in late spring and summer, common terns can be watched diving for fish, but today just the regular residents, including a great crested grebe on the far side.
I retraced my steps, picked up the East Trail and had a better scan over Plover Lake where a cormorant was roosting on a tern-nesting island, drying its wings. Some marvellous colours here before I was distracted by the call of a coal tit from the conifers that form a boundary between the reserve and a golf course. Somewhere in the pine needles this coal tit will have been darting about, but I moved on without seeing it. A mixed flock of siskins and goldfinches bounced over and into another alder, too high up and in too much silhouette for a photo but great to watch. I suspect a few lesser redpoll were mixed in with them, judging by the calls, but these remained unseen.
From Steggall's Hide, the most easterly one, I watched diving cormorants and searched the wetland area for more snipe as it looked an ideal habitat for these splendid waders. Only a few wood pigeons here though and another great crested grebe, several tufted duck and yet more teal.
I headed back to the Kingfisher Trail. This one is made up of hardcore and therefore usable for wheelchairs and mobility scooters, unlike the rather peaty and muddy East Trail. A great spotted woodpecker called as I viewed a male kestrel on telegraph wires before once again entering the Bernard Hide in what, I tried to convince myself, was improved light. The snipe were now out in the open so I fired off a few murky shots. One particular snipe was next to a drake shoveler, showing the size difference; the wader looked tiny in comparison to the bulky duck. A bird of prey must have flown over, out of sight, as all the wildfowl rose in one large flock, spent a few minutes circling the lake before once again landing – panic over.
More siskins and goldfinches and a wren rattled off an alarm call from deep in the depths of one of many large stands of bramble. The wooded areas bordering the lakes as well as the Ash Carr stretch of path look an ideal habitat for autumnal fungi species whereas the open grassland areas should be good for wild flowers. In one such area, near the visitors' centre, a good stand of verbascum, also known as mullein. I checked the large sailing lake where a solitary drake pochard was nearby, but no hoped-for goldeneye that can be found over wintering here.
I arrived back at the visitors' centre and spoke to the centre manager who helpfully told me of the history of this wonderful reserve. I followed up with refreshments from the café, where there is also a small shop selling nature books, souvenirs and bird food. One hide the manager Hawk told me about was the new Double Decker Hide overlooking The Shallows and The Slough. This is almost complete and will be opened in the new year. Another great site offering visitors excellent views over the lakes.
A male blackbird perched dozing in a tree whilst, underneath, a female flicked leaf litter in search of invertebrates. I set off for Sayer's Breck through a field of grazing sheep and sedges. After about 10 minutes the sky darkened and the forecasted rain began, so I scuttled back to the centre and the car park. On the side of the visitors' centre, an impressive bee hotel for leaf cutter bees. Upon closer inspection it was noted that many of the bamboo tubes were blocked up, showing signs of bee residence. In front of the centre, adjacent to a pond, is a well-stocked bird feeding station where a variety of birds could be viewed at close quarters. There were regular feeder visitors such as tit species whilst, underneath, picking up the fallen food were wood pigeon, blackbird and dunnock. This feeding area can also be viewed from the café.
By now the rain was too heavy and, fingers crossed, I thought I had enough photos for this piece. I certainly had enough details to report upon. This wonderful reserve comes highly recommended. Just 50 miles away and free to enter – donations are gratefully received – it boasts a fine range of habitats and, with so many hides to access, it is easy to get great views of the birds, especially the wildfowl. Google Lackford Lakes for more details on special days for toddlers and youngsters, along with a broad schedule of other educational and wildlife initiatives. Any time seems to be a great time to visit, but please be aware the centre is closed December 20-26. There is also a Facebook presence with up-to-date news, photos and occasional videos.
I arrived home and listed the birds I had seen and/or heard. In total, a splendid 45 species and I suspect many others, such as kingfisher and fieldfare, remained unrecorded.
Finally, I would like to wish all readers a very happy Christmas and I look forward to more nature wanderings and ramblings in 2022.