GRAFHAM WATER by Mark Hawkes

Google Map of Grafham

The dam © Simon StirrupGrafham Water is the third largest area of inland water in England. It was created as recently as 1962, when construction of the dam began, but the reservoir was not filled to its current level until 1966. Grafham's size can be daunting and, in the right weather conditions, it can look like an 'inland-sea'. The reservoir has about 9 miles of shoreline, but most of it is viewable using the cycle-path that circles it.

Its impact on birding in Cambridgeshire has been phenomenal. It is probably the premier site in the county and consistently produces an array of rare and scarce birds. It has changed the status of some species in the county since its creation. But, be warned, as excellent a site as this is, it can be very hard to watch!

Grafham Water is located just west of the A1 between Huntingdon and St. Neots, and is best accessed via the B661 at Buckden. There are four main car parks around the reservoir, but by far the most useful, is Mander car park (TL143672), located just west of Perry village. This car park is closest to the Wildlife Trust Centre and the adjoining nature reserve. It is also here that the new fishing lodge can be found, offering a café (open 7 days a week, with good food), toilets (including disabled) and an outdoor clothing/fishing tackle shop. From here it is possible to walk around the nature reserve trails. The scrub around the trails has a small population of Nightingales, and is good for common warblers in summer, with occasional Firecrest records. From the trail it’s possible to access five bird hides (two by wheelchair), including Dudney hide (TL137677), which overlooks the main area of the nature reserve and the recently installed tern rafts. The creek is excellent for winter wildfowl, with occasional Mandarin, Smew, all 3 scarce grebes, divers and an array of waders during passage periods (depending on the water level). The County record count of Ruddy Ducks (121) was recorded here in January 2002. Rare birds recorded here have included Great White Egret, Ring-necked Duck and Pectoral Sandpipers. Also Britain's third inland Surf Scoter frequented this creek and Bittern has been seen here, with Little Egrets now being regular.

This trail is also the best way to access Littless Wood, a large area of ancient woodland, with a mixture of scrub, conifers and bordering arable land. All common woodland birds breed here, including Marsh Tit, Nuthatch and the area has recorded singing Golden Oriole and occasional passage Common Redstarts.

Just east of Perry are the Lagoons. Access is, by rights, restricted, due to work by Anglian Water. The area has great potential for waders, but the sandy filter beds rarely attract more than the common waders. In previous years rare waders have included Least Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Marsh Sandpiper, Black-winged Stilt and Wilson’s Phalarope, also Spoonbills, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck and occasional Scaup. The area holds breeding Water Rail, Grasshopper Warblers and Ruddy Ducks. It is excellent for wintering Teal and Shoveler. Jack Snipe are probably regular in winter (but there is NO access down to the pools) where Spotted Crake has been recorded three times and Bittern once. The areas of scrub around the lagoons are excellent for passage migrants with records of Bluethroat, Red-backed Shrike, Great Grey Shrike, Wood Warbler, Firecrest and Ring-necked Parakeet. Bearded Tit and Water Pipit were once annual, but are now very rare; Stonechats and Ring Ouzels however favour this area. The northern edge of the lagoons gives a good view over the centre of the reservoir.

The east end of the reservoir is accessed from either Plummer car park (TL163666) or Marlow car park (TL167681). The creek off Plummer car park also holds good numbers of wildfowl and occasional waders and scarce grebes. It is possible to follow cycle path around the reservoir, and along the top of the dam to obtain extensive views over the reservoir. The Dam/Marlow CP areas are the best area for waders, with regular sightings of Dunlin, Common Sandpipers and annual Sanderlings, Turnstones and Little Stints. Rarities have included White-rumped Sandpiper and several Purple Sandpipers (11 site records – holding the county monopoly). Both Red-necked and Grey Phalaropes occur here occasionally. It is also the most reliable site in Cambridgeshire for Rock Pipits, with Snow Buntings being occasional. Twite and Lapland Buntings are recorded rarely. Obliging Wryneck, Ring Ouzels, Pied Flycatchers, Redstarts, Whinchats and Black Redstarts have been present near Marlow CP, and the deep water areas are excellent for diving birds, with sometimes hundreds of Great Crested Grebes together, small groups of scoters (usually Common), scarce grebes, and all 3 divers, with occasional Long-tailed Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers.

The north shore is best accessed using Hill Farm car park (TL148694); this is located at the end of minor road running west from Grafham village. From here it is around 2/3-mile walk west to the new hide at Savages Creek (TL135690). The creek holds large numbers of common wildfowl and is the best area for Smew around the reservoir. Unfortunately, due to its south facing origin, the viewing is best either early or late in the day. The extensive woodland along north shore is good for common birds, with several Common Buzzards resident, and both Red Kites and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker occasionally.

The main reservoir itself can be viewed from any of the above areas, although Mander car park and the Dam continually produce the best birds. The reservoir has an unparalleled track record for inland seabirds, including Sooty Shearwater and Little Auk (both 1988), Leach's Petrel (1979, 1983, 1985, 1991, 2005 and 3 in 2006) Storm Petrel (2000 & 2008), Pomarine Skua (1976, 1985, 1987, 1991 & 2007) and Gannet (recently in 1999, 2005 & 2006). The site also has occasional Manx Shearwaters, Arctic and Great Skuas, Fulmar, Brent Geese and all the sea-ducks, including Velvet Scoter. The reservoir is attracting a reputation as one of the best sites in England to see inland Common Scoters.

Terns are another feature of the reservoir. Common Terns are present in large numbers in passage periods and up to 200 Arctic Terns have been recorded together, but small numbers are more usual. Both Little and Sandwich Terns are almost annual, and Black Terns are always present during passage periods, with up to 400 recorded in record years. Rare terns have included Roseate, Caspian, Whiskered and White-winged Black Tern.

The reservoir can be great for gull watching, usually from Mander car park, the Lagoons, or Plummer car park, but they can be distant. In mid-winter it is likely that 50,000+ gulls roost here, and increased coverage has recently uncovered regular Mediterranean, Iceland and Glaucous Gulls. Little Gulls and Yellow-legged Gulls occur throughout the year. Caspian Gulls are now being recorded annually. Sabine's Gulls have been recorded very rarely, with up to 10 occurring during the 1987 storm. Grafham Water also lays claim to the first Ring-billed Gull in Cambridgeshire and the first and second Laughing Gulls! We eagerly await our first Franklin’s…

Raptors are not well represented around the reservoir, but Ospreys are annual, with some lingering and Hobbies are regular throughout the summer. Rough-legged Buzzard and Montagu’s Harriers have only been recorded twice and Honey Buzzards are rare visitors. Marsh Harriers are now annual, but Hen Harriers remain rare passage migrants, mainly moving up the Ouse Valley and viewed from the Dam. All five owls occur, but Short-eared and Long-eared Owls are scarce.

Other rare birds recorded at Grafham include Blue-winged Teal, Corncrake, Pratincole sp, Stone Curlew, Kentish Plover, Shorelark and Richard’s Pipit, but the site has a reputation for producing the most unexpected and every visit can be different, strangely Red-headed Bunting and Marbled Duck were both recorded within a month of each other in 1976!

Mark Hawkes, October 2008