Barn Elms secured its place in the hearts of many of London's commuter birders when a 1st-summer male Desert Wheatear arrived for a two day stay in April 1989. The quick release of the news meant that there were more suits and briefcases on view than had previously or have since been seen at a major twitch.
During the early 1900s, the scene at Barn Elms Reservoirs, London SW13, was described by C. J. Cornish "as sub-arctic and lacustrine as on any Finland pool, for the frost-fog hung over river and reservoirs", while in the centre of one of the reservoirs an acre of apparently heaped-up snow "changed into a solid mass of gulls, all preparing to go to sleep" (Nicholson 1995).
Recently developed by The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) into the Wetland Centre, 105 acres of lakes, lagoons, grazing marsh, reedbeds and mudflats, the site continues to inspire, providing birdwatching spectacles albeit it of a slightly differing nature. Gone are the heady days of the 1950s when flocks of almost 100 Smew were recorded over-wintering: in their place arrive increasing numbers of shoveler with peak counts of 150 in the winter of 1999/2000 more than 1% of the entire UK population, just several years after the sites dramatic transformation.
Interestingly, it was the Smews rapid decline during the 70s and 80s, together with falling waterfowl numbers in general, that enabled the site to become what it is today. Had the reservoirs continued to attract such important numbers of diving duck it would not have been acceptable to break them up and create the unique habitats that now exist. But the declining numbers led English Nature to consider re-notifying the SSSI site under the 1981 Wildlife & Countryside Act, and the future of the site looked far from safe.
Around the same time, owners of the site Thames Water, were putting finishing touches to the London Ring Main, a 50mile underground tunnel carrying water around the capital, which in effect made the Barn Elms Reservoirs redundant. The timing couldnt have been better as WWT looked for an urban site to develop a centre, and the two partners came together. A third partner came on board in the form of Berkeley Homes with permission to develop 25acres of the total 130acre site for luxury housing, in return for a percentage of the partners profits being used by WWT to create the Wetland Centre: an example of sustainable development that Sir David Attenborough has already described as "an ideal model for how the natural world and humanity might exist alongside one another in the centuries to come."
Even during the construction period (1995 2000) a number of interesting birds dropped in, including avocet, little stint and a solitary feral Whooper Swan, arriving on the very first day work began in November 1995, and still to leave the site today! 1999 saw several more notable London species including Spoonbill, Little Egret, Ortolan Bunting and Spotted Crake all passing through, and just prior to opening in May 2000 we had new site records of Marsh Harrier, Red Kite and Common Crane the latter last being seen heading off in the direction of Blackfriars Bridge, Central London.
Despite the array of breeding Reed and Sedge Warblers, Little and Great-crested Grebe, Little-ringed Plover and Lapwing, the site is undoubtedly of most interest during passage and over the winter months. This years passage birds have included several drake Garganey, Hobby, Kittiwake, Redshank (yet to breed despite three years attempts), Snipe, Common and Green Sandpiper, Yellow Wagtail, Whinchat, Wheatear and most recently a juvenile Arctic Skua. The most impressive sight in spring is the large numbers of hirundines, in particular House Martins and Swifts that skim the lake and soar the skies above a man-made vista of skyscrapers and cranes.
Recent attempts by Peregrines to breed in central London mean they are also reasonably regular hunters at the Wetland Centre, joining Sparrowhawks and Kestrels in dominating the skies; in winter their presence always noticeable by the flocks of Teal they spook into flight. As flooding of the grazing marsh took place for the first time last winter, Teal were the first ducks to take advantage, with flocks of about 350 dabbling for seeds and vegetation. Joined by Gadwall, Wigeon and occasionally Shoveler (who generally preferred the open water of the Main Lake) it was an impressive sight and one imagines, somewhat reminiscent of centuries gone by on the Thames floodplain.
Following last years success in attracting increasing numbers of over-wintering duck, it is an exciting time as we approach autumn and await the return of this years birds. Although now open to the public, there is less disturbance on site than ever before with all building work complete and vegetation and hides screening people from the different habitats. As the site matures we can only wait and see what other species will decide to drop in, and as fish stocks increase we can only hope that the Smew, with its stunning black and white plumage, will make a most welcome return.
Martin Senior Press & Media Relations Officer (the Wetland Centre)
The Wetland Centre is open every day except Christmas day, 9.30am to 6.00pm in summer (last admissions 5.00pm), 9.30am to 5.00pm (last admissions 4.00pm) in winter. Sundays are for WWT members, season ticket holders and their guests only (there is no limit on how many guests may accompany each member). Facilities include a large glass viewing Observatory, several hides including the 3-storey Peacock Tower compete with lift access, Art Gallery, in focus Optics Shop, Restaurant and Café, WWT Shop, Discovery Centre and Planet Water Theatre. For further information call 020 8409 4400, email: email@example.com or visit the WWT site (then click on The Wetland Centre) at http://www.wwt.org.uk