Catch Tring Reservoirs' autumn bird watching spectacle

Two European starling murmurations / large flock of common starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and b

Starling murmurations, 'one of nature’s most magical spectacles' can be witnessed at the reserve - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Spanning more than 100 hectares, the beautiful Tring Reservoirs host a wildlife spectacle at this time of year, as thousands of birds arrive - a perfect half term activity. You don't need to be a birder, this is a magnificent free show for us all...

A6J8B5 Winter Wildfowl Tring Reservoir Herts UK

Winter wildfowl in abundance at Tring Reservoirs - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

You may not know it, but we are lucky enough in Hertfordshire to have one of the best places to marvel at wildlife in the south of England, with something to see throughout the year, but especially so as we enter autumn and on into winter.

At just over 100 hectares, Tring Reservoirs is Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust’s largest nature reserve, managed and protected in partnership with the Canal and River Trust. 

The site is made up of four reservoirs - Startop's End, Marsworth and Tringford are close together while Wilstone Reservoir is a short distance to the west - dug in the early 19th century to supply the Grand Union Canal. 

They are situated at the foot of the Chiltern escarpment and although artificial, the water-bodies are fed by natural springs. 

Grand Union Canal, Marsworth

Grand Union Canal at Marsworth - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

The clear water supports a diverse community of plants and animals, features of the ancient marshes present before the reservoir was constructed.

The marginal vegetation is dominated by tall fen and reedbed, backed by scrub and woodland.

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The reserve is a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its nationally important biodiversity but is best known for birds which attract thousands of admirers each year.

black-necked grebe (Podiceps nigricollis), two courting black-necked grebes

Courting black-necked grebes - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

'The reservoirs are famous ornithologically on account of the first nesting in this country of black-necked grebes in 1918 and by little ringed plovers in 1938,' explains Tim Hill, who has been HMWT conservation manager at the site for 17 years. 

'Over 250 different species have been seen here and breeding birds vary from the mighty grey herons to recently established Cetti’s warblers.

'From autumn onwards, starlings roost in the reedbeds in huge numbers and at dusk one of nature’s most magical spectacles can be experienced as they ‘murmurate’ – flying around in a vast swirling flock before dropping down into the reeds to rest over night.'

The rare bittern can be glimpsed at Cheshire Willdife Trusts Marbury Reedbed from around November-Ma

The rare bittern can be glimpsed at Cheshire Willdife Trusts Marbury Reedbed from around November-March. Picture by Jamie Hall - Credit: JAMIE HALL

As the reservoirs were created to provide water for the adjacent canal, water is pumped out during late summer.

As water levels slowly drop in the reservoirs it exposes muddy margins packed with insect larvae which provide food for migrant wading birds such as common and green sandpipers, redshank, greenshank and dunlin.

During the winter months, ducks dominate the waters, with shovelers present in nationally important numbers.  

With so much water, it’s no surprise that the reservoirs have a diverse fish community, with tench, perch, roach, bream all abundant.

Cetti's warbler among reeds

Cetti's warbler is newly-established at the site - Credit: Amy Lewis

Pike, the freshwater equivalent of the great white shark, grows up to 35 pounds, preying on smaller fish. During spring catfish weighing up to 43 pounds can be seen breaching out of the water like humpback whales.

The specimen fish make the reservoirs a popular spot for anglers - best fished with cloud cover and a breeze according to Dacorum Borough Council - and have produced five British records. Fishing rights to Startops, Marsworth and Wilstone were acquired by The Canal and River Trust in 2007 who provide licences in association with The Tring Anglers club. 

Tim Hill says: 'With so many fish, birds which feed on them also thrive here. Small fish are the main food for migrant common terns, for instance, which nest on specially constructed nesting rafts.'

In recent years, the trust has been restructuring the fringing reedbeds to improve habitat for fish where rare bitterns feed, usually arriving in September or October. Channels and pools have been cut with an amphibious reed-cutting machine. 

E4HRTT Man fishing on Marsworth Reservoir near Tring during heavy rain

E4HRTT Man fishing on Marsworth Reservoir near Tring during heavy rain - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

After an absence of 30 years, otters have now been recorded. This year the trust built a new birdwatching hide at Wilstone Reservoir, named in memory of Paul Thrush, the trust’s late nature reserves manager. 

In summer, the reservoirs are alive with insects. Water beetles are particularly notable and 13 species of dragonfly breed here. Moths are abundant and provide food for Daubenton’s and noctule bats which can be seen hunting over the reserve in early autumn. 

For a walk or cycle around the area, look no further than the Royal Geographical Society’s ‘Discovering Britain’ recommendation: a just-shy-of six mile route that takes in Tring Reservoirs and a stretch of the Grand Union Canal at Bulbourne where you may also catch the narrowboats navigating the locks. 

DKGXKJ Ivy growth on tree and sunset over Marsworth reservoir part of the Tring reservoirs complexTr

DKGXKJ Ivy growth on tree and sunset over Marsworth reservoir part of the Tring reservoirs complexTring Herts UK - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Tim Hill says the reservoirs hold a very special place in his heart. 'Wetlands are special places, providing refuge for a wealth of wildlife but are now increasingly rare in Hertfordshire and the region.

'Many of our most iconic species such as bitterns are restricted to places like the Tring reservoirs.

'One of my great joys is spending a winter afternoon gazing into the reedbed at Marsworth reservoir hoping for a glimpse of this elusive bird which chooses to spend winter with us, roosting in the reeds and feeding on the abundant fish which thrive in this complex ecosystem.

‘Wetlands like this are full of wildlife right through the year and to me provide solace, a place to unwind and reconnect with nature.’

Tring Reservoirs is just north of Tring and is free to visit. It can be reached through several entrances, with free parking at Wilstone Reservoir.

Find out more about the reserve and plan your visit at hertswildlifetrust.org.uk

 For reservoir walks and more on the work of the Canal and River Trust, head to canalrivertrust.org.uk