‘Sparrowhawk!’ ‘Kestrel!’ I’m at Walthamstow Wetlands with Charlie Owens, the site’s ecology and conservation ranger, and he keeps stopping mid-sentence to alert me to the local residents. ‘It’s the one that looks like it’s got a topknot’, he says, as I try to get a closer look at a tufted duck. Walthamstow Wetlands is both a nature reserve and a Thames Water reservoir site. It only opened to the public in 2017, but the first reservoirs were hand-dug in the 1800s.
Charlie’s role here focuses on conservation, including fortnightly surveys where volunteers count all the birds on the water, and a ‘ringing’ project, where they place colourful metal rings on birds’ legs to keep track of them. ‘We’ve done the project for two years so far. Birds who were ringed here as chicks have been found in the Peak District and Brighton, one appeared in Birmingham’, explains Charlie. ‘You can learn so much about their habits through these activities.’ Charlie is a mine of information. I learn about waxwings – birds with red-tipped feathers, which you’ll see in winter at the wetlands – and I’m surprised to find out that there are mussels in the reservoirs – they collect on the concrete banks and the tufted ducks (the ones with the top knots?) feed on them. Otters, grass snakes and eels have all been spotted. ‘Eels can climb over land – I don’t think they’d have trouble crossing over the path between reservoirs’, Charlie says . Oh, and they grow up to a metre long. I’m both intrigued and terrified.
Putting aside images of an eel jumping out at me, I ask Charlie what makes the wetlands important. ‘There’s a whole heap of birds, invertebrates and mammals that rely on these types of habitats,’ he explains. ‘If reed warblers fly all the way from Africa and there’s no reed for them when they get here, they can’t breed – that population could crash.’ It’s not just the birds that benefit. Walking around the wetlands is incredibly peaceful and I learn a lot in one morning. Okay, I’m no David Attenborough but at least I can now spot a tufted duck. Probably. Isabelle Aron