Trip reports

River Lee Country Park, 28th February

River Lee Country Park, 28th February
Little egret by Jon Perry

Friday, 13 March 2015

The Lee Valley Regional Park is a 26mile long linear park following the course of the River Lee (Lea) from Ware in Hertfordshire to where it spills into the Thames by East India Dock Basin, opposite the Dome. The River Lee has long been important for transport, as a source of power for industry and for drinking water. It formed the boundary between Danelaw and Saxon Wessex (and thus between paganism and Christendom) and went on to separate Essex from London, Middlesex and Hertfordshire. It passes through Rye meads, Amwell, the Olympic Park, and our destination on the 28th of February, the River Lee Country Park.

The Country Park is cut through by the meandering river itself, plus the River Lea Navigation - an arrow straight canal constrained between high banks - and various flood relief channels. There are some substantial lakes which I assume are old gravel workings. I've been told there is more water in the Lee Valley than in the Norfolk Broads. The old river course was running fast, testing its banks. Moorhens and coots were paddling furiously into the current just to stand still. In short it is a watery sort of place retaining its sense of being a borderland. It is prone to flooding. Who knows, perhaps the ghost of King Alfred may be lurking somewhere in the reedbeds. I thought I caught a whiff of burning cakes once or twice.

For all that it takes only 8 minutes by the fast train from Tottenham Hale to reach Cheshunt Station and from there only a quick hop over the railway line into the park. It is an easy destination even for a South Londoner like me. Thanks to the 13 souls who came out on an unpromising day - basically dry but with flat grey light that soaked up colour. At first there seemed to be little by way of birdlife; some long-tailed tits, dunnocks and robins. At Friday Lake however there was a female goldeneye and, joy of joys, there were four smew, including a drake in all his dashing designer-duck finery. The smew obliged by not diving, allowing everyone a good view. It's hard to top that, and when leading a trip you feel it is better not to get all the best birds at the beginning - but they were lovely to see. There was also a greylag gosling - a harbinger of spring.

We tried without success to find some snipe at Hall Marsh Scrape. The water levels were high which didn't help. There was a rather attractive iridescent blue-green pheasant and lots of shovelers. Walking to the Snipe hide we watched a tree creeper flit from tree to tree - delightful. The paths around the park are pretty meandering, following the irregular margins of the lakes. The technical term for this, according to our recent speaker from the RSPB's Nature after Minerals Team, is "wiggly edges". It allows lots of nooks and crannies for nature to lurk in. It does mean that the walks are quite long. Stomachs were rumbling by our lunch stop at the Bittern Information Point. The information was that there was no sign of the bittern.

The cormorants have started nesting. They build nests communally in trees which appear to be slowly dying beneath them. Black, reptilian birds perched on untidy nests in the dark bare bones of trees spattered with white; a splendidly gloomy sight on a dull day and quite in keeping with the place. Birds flew in and out ferrying nesting material. A few herons seemed to be trying to squeeze into the colony. Magpies pecked around the nests looking for scraps or perhaps a chance to steal eggs and risking, I imagine, a pretty nasty pecking from the residents.

Leaving smew aside, birds of the day were really the great-crested grebes, of which there were many. They were almost all in pairs and all looked as if they were about to do their display dance but then didn't. Perhaps they were embarrassed to do it with an audience. There was a little half-hearted head bobbing and one came up with some weed, but then seemed to lose interest. But they are lovely birds, dancing or not. Late in the day around the path to the aptly named Grebe Hide there were some wonderfully confiding goldcrests. Eighty or so fieldfare perched obligingly in the trees for us and flocks of lapwing flew over. There was a blackthorn in full blossom.

An interesting sighting, identified later by Shailesh, was a hybrid duck which appears to have been a cross between a wood duck and a mallard. Makes you wonder how it ended up in the Lee Valley.

Post by Graeme Hutchinson. Thanks to Jon Perry for the photo. You can see more pictures taken on the day on his Flickr album: