On Sunday 28 May 2023, I was undertaking what was a usual visit to my beloved Belvide Reservoir, Staffordshire, until a distant bird found on a hedgerow revealed itself as a female Red-backed Shrike. This was significant – it was the first-ever Red-backed Shrike for Belvide and was also my 250th species seen at the site. The air was punched and handshakes were made with the two pals with me who were in on the find. It was a landmark bird.
You have to go back 39 years, to 10 March 1984, when a 12-year-old me was introduced to Belvide Reservoir on a YOC field meeting. That was the day that kicked off a lifelong passion for the site that gets stronger and stronger each time I visit.
Belvide Reservoir is a 73-ha canal feeder situated in south-west Staffordshire and is about as landlocked as you can get. It is a relatively small reservoir compared to most, but packs a big punch regarding birds, with 263 species recorded to date.
Steve has found no fewer than three Spotted Sandpipers at his inland Belvide Reservoir patch, including this breeding-plumaged adult in May 2017 (Steve Nuttall).
For the first few years, visits were sporadic and it wasn't until the back end of 1987 that I started to make more regular vigils. In September 1987, a pair of Black-winged Stilts arrived and this was to be my first experience of a true rarity at Belvide. In 1988 I started to find my first scarcities, in the form of a Firecrest in April and a Leach's Storm Petrel in September. The petrel was the first time I had experienced a crowd of people turn up to see a bird I had found. It gave me such a buzz and I wanted more.
The greatest days
One patch date that stands out more than most is 19 November 1988. It is still the most memorable day of birding I have witnessed at Belvide. A cold, murky day with a light easterly breeze disorientated a flock of 18 Greater Scaup and four Common Scoter. This was to be eclipsed in the afternoon, however, when I found a single Red-throated Diver flying around in the murk. As I watched it through my telescope, it latched onto a flock of divers – an incredible 18 Red-throated Divers were flying around the reservoir! Luckily for my sake, three birds decided to land and stay until the next day, as I'm sure nobody would have believed me at the time.
Early birding mentors such as John Higginson, Eric Phillips and Steve Jaggs educated me with my birding apprenticeship. This was invaluable in finding notable inland rarities such as an Icterine Warbler in July 1993 and a Little Bunting in April 1995. I was to reach 200 species in September 1994 with a Red Kite.
I look back now at the immense pleasure and feelings of wellbeing that Belvide has given me over the years. From 1994, it has taken me another 29 years to add a further 50 species. Highlights include finding Laughing Gull and Bonaparte's Gulls and three different Spotted Sandpipers, while an outrageous three Sabine's Gulls dropped in one June day in 2017. The European Honey Buzzard invasion during September 2000, when I saw no fewer than 11 birds pass through, stands out too.
Seabirds on an inland reservoir always give me a great buzz. Two Long-tailed, three Pomarine and multiple Arctic and Great Skuas have all been seen. Add to the mix Northern Gannet, two Manx Shearwaters and five Leach's Storm Petrels over the years. I like nothing more than sitting in the hide with it pouring with rain and an easterly wind blowing. That has been my main tactic in rarity finding: just to sit and wait.
At the time of writing, I have visited Belvide nearly 9,300 times. I've worked out I have walked at least 29,000 km around the place in that time. Reaching 250 species is merely unfinished business and, god willing, I can get another 30 years out of the place.
- This column was originally published in the July 2023 issue of Birdwatch magazine.