Wildlife at Walthamstow Wetlands

kingfisher credit Jon Hawkins – Surrey Hills Photography

Walthamstow Wetlands supports significant wintering populations of pochard, shoveler and gadwall. Regionally important breeding populations of grey heron, tufted duck, little egret, cormorant and other waterfowl are present and kingfisher can be seen across the site.

Of course, it’s not all about the birds; both sites are great for invertebrates such as damselflies and dragonflies, as well as amphibians and bats.

Click the links below to find out more the wildlife at Walthamstow Wetlands.

Waders

Because of their central location in the Lea Valley migration flyway, Walthamstow Reservoirs are in prime position to attract a range of wading birds to stop off on their often long-distance journeys.

Generally heading north in the spring and south in the summer and autumn, many species already utilise the shores of the reservoirs, and you never know what might drop in.

The northern group of reservoirs are traditionally the most attractive, most notably the less disturbed, more ‘natural’ banks of the Lockwood.

The habitat here is more inviting, including areas of mud and shingle along an often wide, exposed shoreline – ideal for tempting down various waders on passage over London.

Regular visitors to the reservoirs include green and common sandpiper, dunlin, redshank and lapwing, while less common species include ringed and little ringed plover, curlew, ruff, snipe, oystercatcher, wood sandpiper, whimbrel, golden plover and little stint.

The reservoirs have had their fair share of rarities over the years, including spotted and pectoral sandpipers from North America.

There are clear and exciting opportunities to enhance and develop habitats at the reservoirs to encourage many more waders to visit (and some may even stay to breed), turning what is already a wader hotspot into a veritable gold mine for these enchanting wanderers.

Redshank. Image copyright Harry Hogg

Redshank. Image credit Harry Hogg.

Kingfishers

There are almost 100 different types of kingfisher throughout the world, but only one breeds in the United Kingdom – the unimaginatively named but stunningly-plumaged common kingfisher.

‘Our’ kingfisher is a familiar but often elusive bird, and despite its distinctive colouration it can be surprisingly hard to find.

Walthamstow Reservoirs are a favoured location for these iconic waterbirds, and they can theoretically be found almost anywhere across the site if you’re fortunate – but they tend to especially favour the watercourses around the southern group, where overhanging branches provide ideal vantage points.

Most views consist of a flash of electric blue disappearing downriver, but with patience and luck, perching birds can be found, stock-still as they carefully scan the water below for potential prey.

Kingfishers require vertical banks for their nest sites, which are excavated by both parents and include an entrance tunnel often over a metre long.

Where suitable natural nesting habitat doesn’t exist, providing artificial banks – often for both kingfishers and sand martins – can be a successful way of helping them move into an area permanently.

Kingfisher. Image credit: Malcolm Brown

Kingfisher. Image credit: Malcolm Brown

Bitterns

(Eurasian) bittern – Botaurus stellaris: Bitterns are rarer, more exotic cousins of the more familiar grey heron, but these enchanting birds could soon become a star attraction at Walthamstow Wetlands.

Almost reptilian in appearance, bitterns are often very shy and secretive, creeping silently through their chosen habitat of Phragmites reeds.

They also have a beautifully intricate and cryptic plumage which provides highly effective camouflage in their chosen surroundings.

They require extensive, undisturbed reedbeds for breeding and are dependent on the right balance of habitat characteristics, including vegetation density, water depth and territory size.

While they remain extremely rare as breeding birds in the UK, a small but significant wintering population arrive from the continent every autumn to take advantage of our more accommodating climate, and in freezing condtions, larger influxes can occur from mainland Europe.

These wintering birds also require reedbeds, which provide them with their security, feeding and roosting needs.

The appearance of birds actually on-site in recent years – as well as the presence of wintering individuals at nearby sites – strongly suggests that suitable habitat creation and management at Walthamstow Wetlands would encourage bitterns to set up shop here in the heart of urban East London; an exciting and realistic prospect!

Bittern: Image credit: Jamie Hall

Bittern: Image credit: Jamie Hall

Duck and cover!

Walthamstow Reservoirs are justly famous for their waterbirds, and are of international importance for wildfowl – in other words, a truly great place for ducks.

Significant numbers of tufted ducks, shovelers, gadwall and pochard have relied on the reservoirs for generations and continue to thrive here, some travelling from as far as Russia to spend part of their year here in east London.

Crucially, Walthamstow Reservoirs have a range of valuable wetland habitats that attract an enviable range of species from all points of the compass.

Not only do they host the expansive, windswept waterbodies many associate with London’s reservoirs, but they also feature wooded islands and landscaped lakes that provide cover and habitat for a wider range of species.

In addition, teal congregrate in their hundreds, mallards are ubiquitous, wigeon graze the grassy slopes, and goosander and goldeneye can be found with a little patience.

But it’s not just the more familiar faces that you’ll find here. Scarcer species including red-crested pochard, garganey, mandarin, scaup and red-breasted merganser are all possible at the right time of year.

And on a good day, you could see as many as a dozen duck species – and that’s before you get onto the geese, grebes, herons, rails and various other waterbirds…

Tufted duck. Image credit Paul Thrush

Tufted duck. Image credit Paul Thrush

Wildlife walks

It is easy to forget you are in London as you wander down these quiet paths. If you look carefully, you will see many different species of birds, insects and mammals.

It is being proposed that much of the existing footpath network will remain largely as it is – providing low key natural trails through the site.

Directional signage will be introduced identifying circular and longer walks, and benches will be provided at appropriate locations.

It is proposed that internal gates will be added to help manage access; these can be used to protect sensitive wildlife areas (for example during periods of season sensitivity for wildlife) or during land maintenance and operational works, but allow access at other times.

It is proposed that a three kilometre, DDA compliant, cycle and footpath, will run north/south between Lockwood Way to Forest Road and Forest Road to Coppermill.

This will be appropriately surfaced, planted and waymarked. The final route of the path will be decided following community consultations and survey work.

Walthamstow Wetlands landscape

Heron Island

These large, elegant waterbirds are present all year round at Walthamstow Reservoirs, and can often be seen lumbering lazily across the water – easily told by their size (dwarfing almost all other birds in London’s airspace), their gangly legs trailing untidily behind them, and their long, snaking neck retracted into a tight S-shape when on the wing.

The archetypal expert anglers, grey herons can be found across the reservoirs, quietly hunting and pursuing their prey in the shallows; remaining seemingly ‘frozen’ for extended periods, a catch is over in the blink of an eye, as they plunge their dagger-like bills into the water.

Back at the colony, however, and the noise levels increase significantly, with bill-clacking, squawking and territorial disputes bringing the more densely-wooded islands to life.

As with the cormorant colony, views of the heronry here are fantastic, and the birds are so close, they can easily be enjoyed without the need for binoculars.

The heronry here is of national importance, and in numbers of pairs now exceed a hundred in most years.

As if the herons weren’t enough, their raucous community accommodates an altogether more delicate and exotic relative.

Little egrets – ghostly white, and yet surprisingly easy to miss amongst the massed ranks of their larger cousins – are a true speciality of the reservoirs, which proudly host the first and only breeding colony in Greater London.

Go back only a couple of decades, and the arrival of an egret within the city limits would’ve provoked hastily-arranged sick days.

While London records have increased in line with the species’ wider range expansion, it remains a rare visitor to most wetlands, and there are only a handful of sites that are favoured by them – and only one where they’ve chosen to breed.

However, their choice of location isn’t quite as unusual as it first appears. With the resident herons as the perfect cover and protection, the Walthamstow heronry provides an ideal place for them to set up shop.

And as a party of local school children proudly exclaimed after seeing their neighbours for the first time – where better for newcomers to thrive than amongst this bustling and diverse East End community?

Grey heron. Image credit: Amy Lewis-

Grey heron. Image credit: Amy Lewis-

Cormorant Island

These sleek and skilful kings of the water were once only a feature of Britain’s rocky coastlines, but over recent decades they’ve steadily colonised inland sites, favouring reservoirs and lakes.

In most places this means a temporary presence, but at certain sites – where a combination of both nesting and feeding conditions are just right – cormorants have established their impressive, bustling breeding colonies.

Walthamstow Reservoirs is one such special place; in fact, it’s one of the largest and most important breeding sites in the UK.

Each nest is part of a unique and awe-inspiring community expertly constructed from branches, sticks and vegetation, carefully rebuilt every year in the late winter in preparation for hungry, down-covered chicks.

The trails around the reservoirs offer amazing, unrivalled views of the colony, with the birds fulfilling their seasonal cycle of courting, mating, nest-building and chick-rearing on the more sparsely-wooded islands.

The sight of these regal, almost prehistoric-looking birds, weighing down the fragile branches with their wings held cruciform in the sunshine, wouldn’t look out of place in the Camargue or the Serengeti, and yet, it’s uniquely Walthamstow.

Cormorant. Image credit  Steve Waterhouse

Cormorant. Image credit Steve Waterhouse

Habitat enhancements

The extent and design detail of all the habitat enhancements will be developed and mapped during an 18 month Development Phase, based on detailed survey work and consultation.

Much of the biodiversity interest in the site focuses on its aquatic birdlife.

The ecological analysis carried out as part of the Walthamstow Reservoir Feasibility Study recommended that the site is also likely to contain interesting and diverse terrestrial habitats, which could be further enhanced.

These proposed habitat enhancements include:

  • Where operational functionality will allow, the reservoir margins that are not already vegetated, will be planted and floating reed-beds and islands will be added at appropriate locations. Vegetated margins and reedbeds are of particular interest for gadwell, shoveler and bittern. The increase of this habitat has the potential to attract a more regular presence of this iconic bird;
  • Additional islands to help increase habitats for duck species and support an increase in their number;
  • The creation of new fish swims;
  • Tree planting and meadow/grassland creation, and the control of invasive species – particularly Japanese knotweed and giant hogweed;
  • Artificial sand/earth banks in order to attract nesting sand martins and kingfishers and a number of bird roosting poles and nesting platforms will be erected as well as bat roosting boxes, bird nest boxes and bird feeding stations.

Walthamstow Reservoirs flora: Nearly 300 species of plant have been recorded across the wooded areas, grass banks, fen and open water habitats of the Reservoirs.

Some these species are rare in the Greater London area, and their presence supports the Reservoirs’ SSSI and Metropolitan nature conservation interest status.

These include marsh-marigold, the hybrid ‘graceful’ sedge, common club-rush and a sizeable stand of lesser bulrush found within the fringes of fenland vegetation by the banks of the Coppermill Stream.

In addition, the open waters also support the nationally scarce whorled water-milfoil which supports the Ramsar status of the site.

The two Warwick Reservoirs support the most substantial areas of marginal vegetation, with great hairy willowherb, reed, reed-grass, and great pond sedge being present.

Most of the reservoirs are otherwise surrounded by mown grassland which in parts is often diverse, with red campion, bladder campion, common mallow, hawk’s-beard, hardheads, burnet saxifrage and meadow buttercup.

Elsewhere, varying densities of scrub and bramble thickets tend to add diversity to the banks, affording nesting and foraging opportunities for birds, small mammals (including bats) and invertebrates.

These support a diverse mixture of trees and shrubs, including crack and goat willows, sycamore, elder, poplar and hawthorn.

Walthamstow Reservoirs invertebrates: The grasslands, scrub, trees and marginal vegetation support a diversity of invertebrates; insects, spiders and molluscs.

Beetles, butterflies, bees, wasps, grasshoppers, hoverflies and plant bugs benefit from the diversity of vegetation, and the flowery grasslands.

Many species will be typical for the area, and include those found across much of London such as green-veined white, orange tip and speckled wood butterflies, marmalade fly, bumblebees, and thick-kneed beetles.

Within the water bodies a range of aquatic invertebrates are present, providing food for birds and fish. These include leeches, hoglouse, water beetles, pond-skaters, midge larvae and aquatic worms, and water snails.

Importantly a rare water-boatman – Micronecta minutissima – is found here, helping to support the Reservoirs’ Ramsar status.

Walthamstow Wetlands

Walthamstow fisheries

Coarse fishing: With seven different coarse fishing waters to choose from, there are many challenges for all angling abilities.

The waters are all different but hold good stocks of large fish. The mixed coarse fisheries have various sizes of pike, bream, tench, and carp amongst others, whilst the specimen waters hold big fish – including carp up to 40lb.

Fishing records include: Carp 46lb, pike 35lb, bream 18lb, tench 9.5lb, perch 4lb, barbel 12lb, chub 8lb, eel 4lb. There is also the famous Copper Mill stream which contains barbel, chub and perch.

For more information about Course fishing at Walthamstow Reservoirs, click here.

Fly fishing: There are three reservoirs stocked throughout the season with a total of 11,000 rainbow and brown trout.

The rainbow trout are stocked at a minimum weight of 2lb, meaning catches upwards of 5lb are frequent.

The high quality reservoir water is home to various insect life, meaning stocked fish very quickly turn into firm-fleshed, hard-fighting ‘wild fish’, and can double their weight by the end of the season.

More information: Walthamstow Reservoirs Fly Fisher’s Club

This video from Jack Perks shows some of the fish to be spotted at Walthamstow Wetlands.

Main kingfisher image by Jon Hawkins – Surrey Hills Photography