Sunday book review – Birds of Chew Valley Lake by Keith Vinicombe

Chew Valley Lake, CVL to its friends, has been an important part of my life – for a period of just about five years it was where I wanted to be, with my binoculars, in any spare moment. That was nearly 50 years ago and the journey to CVL was then a 40-minute cycle ride from home. Within minutes of arriving at the dam I had clues as to whether it was going to be a profitable visit – what was the water level, were there any waders on the dam itself or the nearby margins, were there any distant terns or small gulls out in the middle of lake? I learned a lot about birds and birdwatching in the surrounds of that sheet of water.

This is a big book by Keith Vinicombe, whose initials KEV, were even then attached to records of species that I had seen, or much more often, missed. At nearly 500 pages one might wonder what could possibly fill the pages – after all, it’s just a reservoir. And even less charitably, one might wonder whether such a book might be the product of an obsession not shared by anyone else. But no, this monumental book is well-judged, well-illustrated, well-designed and well worth having on your bookshelf. Yes, especially if you know the site or you are one of the hundreds of birders who live in or like me, grew up in, the catchment area of this sheet of water.

There are introductory chapters about the history of the site, its non-avian wildlife, its non-birding visitors (mostly anglers and people buying ice-creams and looking at the view) and some personal, and very good, reflections on the site by KEV and a few others.

But most of the book is given over to a taxonomic list of bird occurrences. I have now ‘missed’ even more species at CVL than I had in the 1970s. It has continued a remarkable record of rarities and is still a top birding spot for Bristolians, the residents of Somerset and those passing through. Over 300 species of bird have been recorded at this artificial site since it was opened by the Queen in the mid-1950s and the birds run from Alpine Swift to Yellow-legged Gull or Red-legged Partridge to Reed Bunting depending how you order them. This includes a list of waders numbering in the high 40s and 20+ gull species. But for me the graphs of numbers of birds seen, or indeed ringed, over the decades were of most interest. Most reflected national trends and so you can see the increase in Little Egrets (and some other white egret species) as a birding phenomenon as well as the decline in a range of nationally declining species such as Spotted Flycatcher and Meadow Pipit (and, of course, Ruddy Duck). For many species their occurences through the calendar are shown by month.

This is quite a book. Packed with information and beautifully illustrated with fine photographs, well-presented tables and graphs and with Laurel Tucker’s artwork. There are stories and opinions as well as facts and figures.

No birder ‘owns’ such a public site as this but KEV perhaps comes as close as any, having been birding regularly at this site for all these years and being a major contributor to the information on both rarities and the everyday species. There are probably other birding sites that deserve such a book but few will get them and those that try will have to use this book as a benchmark for their efforts which will be somewhat daunting as this book sets a very high standard. That is largely down to its author but he insists that much of the credit goes to his (and my) friend John Rossetti and there are a wide range of other acknowledgements of course.

I discover that the two Hawfinches I saw with school friends in April 1974 were the first of 12 records for CVL – I’d forgotten that, and I would have struggled to remember which of my school friends made up that group but I could take you now to the spot where we saw them and point to the tree, if it is still there, in which they perched. Such is the grip of birding on the memory.

But if you will indulge me, my most memorable Chew moment was not any of the American waders or the White-winged Blacks, or even the surprise at finding a group of Common Scoter or of an Avocet flying past, it was, I think, on a misty April morning when a Great Northern Diver called several times bringing the sound of the Arctic to north Somerset (or perhaps the fake county of Avon) for a few minutes.

My Chew years number only those when I had a bicycle in my teens before heading off to university, never to live in the Bristol area since. KEV has been birding this site before I started and all the years since. Wow! And his love for this place and its birds shines through these pages.

Birds of Chew Valley Lake: ecology, history, tales by Keith Vinicombe is published by Keith Vinicombe and John Rossetti.


7 Replies to “Sunday book review – Birds of Chew Valley Lake by Keith Vinicombe”

  1. I bet the Ruddy Duck account is interesting, if he shares his views on the cull as well as reporting the numbers.

  2. In the 80s I spent many unhappy hours at Chew unsuccessfully trying to catch fish. Especially from the banks, which didn’t give much access to anywhere “promising”. I was even unhappier at paying for no fish from a boat. The very few I did catch were stock rainbows, usually scarred or bent from surviving cormorant attacks. From this experience I learnt that rainbow trout have remarkable powers of recovery from injury and can survive with broken backbones and that cormorants may not be as competent as people think.

    In 1988 (iirc) there was a long drought and the water levels in Chew and Blagdon fell drastically. Hedge lines, tree stumps and remnants of buildings submerged in the 50s re-emerged and were clearly visible in the Herons Green Bay – Moreton Point area. Drifting in a boat I drifted by the floating corpse of an Enormous perch with a Large brown trout pulling chunks off it – entirely oblivious to the Enormous Bloke watching it from a few feet away. I beached the boat nearby and walked out into the middle of Herons Green Bay on the old road that had been exposed. I don’t know if the water level has been that low since, but that was the most interesting time I had at Chew. Blagdon, however, was a different kettle of fish.

  3. Lovely review Mark – a fine tribute to a great birder, a great site, and what sounds like a fantastic book.

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