Escape to Cornwall’s nature reserves: Maer Lake, Bude

Gulls at Maer Lake, Image by Rowena Millar

8 out of 10 people who shared their experiences of nature in lockdown earlier this year planned to visit a nature reserve in the next 12 months. To help you get outside and discover some of Cornwall's hidden beauty spots, Cornwall Wildlife Trust's Wildlife Reporter Rowena Millar has started a series of nature reserve blogs to help you learn more about the wild places on your doorstep. This time, she takes a look around Maer Lake…

My first impression of Maer Lake – known as The Pool by local people in Bude – was of silver water rippling in a bracing breeze. The lake, by the Flexbury area of town, was truly dazzling in one patch where it caught the light of the morning sun, and I was glad I had brought my sunglasses, despite it being March. The nearest side of the lake was a pale brown below its sheen of sunlit ripples, as the wind was stirring up fine sediment. The water formed a slightly larger expanse than I had expected, fringed with taller vegetation and low grass.

Even without my binoculars I could see that most of the birds on the lake were gulls, including grey-speckled juveniles, and they were concentrated on the left-hand side as seen from the viewing gate – probably the more sheltered end. Many had their heads tucked under their wings, enjoying a morning nap in good company, while dark little ducks (teal) scooted busily this way and that, heads dipping under the surface in search of breakfast.

The nature reserve was close to human habitation, but very securely fenced off, giving it much-needed peace and tranquillity.

A satellite view of the area surrounding Maer Lake

A satellite view of the area surrounding Maer Lake

As I stood at the viewing gate looking across at the lake, foam flecks blown high through the air, over the hill behind me, landed in the field in front. The roar of the Atlantic provided dramatic background noise. The rushing wind added its voice too. If I had been able to soar like the gulls, I would have had a lovely view out to sea, including a bird’s eye view of Crooklets Beach. I had been to school in Bude, but I live some miles away from the wild power of the sea, and so the spume delighted me. What a haven for seabirds on a sheltered lake almost within foam-throwing distance of the sea!

The call of the gulls and background elemental roar was complemented by morning birdsong cheerfully ringing out from the thorny hedges.

The dark, lanky figure of a shag or cormorant flew straight and low over the water at one point, but most of the birds on the wing were gulls, lifted seemingly by the wind under their wing feathers, sailing above the flocks below for a few seconds, then settling back on the water.

According to the Cornwall Bird Watching & Preservation Society and Wikipedia, the pool was first recorded in 1284, as ‘La Mare’, and it appears on a 16th century map, described as The Mere. Probably used as a summer grazing meadow for centuries, the reserve was bought in 1993 by Cornwall Wildlife Trust and the Cornwall Birdwatching & Preservation Society. It is now fitted with sluices, which can be used to keep water levels optimal for birds, while shallow mud and silt, which has built up over many years, provides an ideal feeding site for waders.

Wildlife to look out for at Maer Lake

Birds …

The gulls I saw were Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Black-headed Gulls and a few Great Black-backed Gulls. The best time for birdwatching at Maer Lake is October to February, so what might I have seen on a visit over the winter?

There has been a tragic decline in lapwing (peewit) since the 1940s, especially in the south and west of Britain. Since 1960 the numbers have dropped by 80 per cent in England and Wales, due to changes in farming practices. The neat little black and white bird with its perky crest thrives on wet grassland and used to be seen commonly in large flocks. At Maer Lake lapwings can graze and shelter in peace.

Another striking little bird, speckled and chequered in gold and dark brown/black, is the golden plover, often found grazing together with lapwings.

Running along the edges, as well as the moorhen, its shy brown relative the water rail hides in the vegetation. Another shy brown bird, the common snipe might be hiding there too. Look for snipe skulking amongst the tall yellow flag iris. Common redshank, with bright scarlet legs, can also be seen around the pool edges, probing for insects and worms.

As well as more common ducks such as the mallard and teal, a small and beautiful sea duck and winter migrant, the long-tailed duck, various geese, and Bewick’s and whooper swans (as heard in the video down below) have been seen on the reserve in winter. Some other – sometimes rare or special – birds seen at Maer Lake over the years include that shy, booming member of the heron family the bittern, the tall and striking white spoonbill, great white and little egrets, glossy ibis, snow goose, barnacle goose, Brent goose, shoveler duck and ruff. Birds of prey include the impressive marsh harrier. Other exciting visitors have included the waders Temminck’s stint and Wilson’s and red-necked phalaropes, the citrine wagtail (a rare migrant quite similar to the grey and yellow wagtails in appearance), and the semi-palmated sandpiper.

East Cornwall Reserves Manager Peter Kent visited Maer Lake four days before me and saw three or four black-tailed godwits. These elegant, quite large waders look grey-brown in winter but grow orange-brown feathers on their bodies in summer. One was already moulting into its breeding plumage. These birds might have been on passage, heading north and dropping into Maer Lake on route, or wintering birds preparing to leave.

Whooper Swans by Tom Hibbert

Reserve warden Alan Rowland’s bird list from the exact day of my visit includes gulls and ducks already mentioned, plus shelduck, Canada goose, curlew and some birds of the wider countryside: wood pigeon, carrion crow, dunnock, blue tit, robin, starling, magpie, chaffinch and greenfinch. Some of these would have been the source of the singing in the hedges that accompanied my gull and duck watching.

…. and more

In spring, with a good enough zoom lens, you might see the white, fluffy star-flowers of bogbean on the water. In summer, the delicate pink flowers of pink water-speedwell appear. The huge, floppy yellow flowers of the yellow flag iris will be obvious, even from the viewing gate. In my own garden I have noticed how this flower attracts bumblebees. The marsh marigold will soon be in flower, spreading its rounded leaves and shiny, large buttercup-like flowers out over the water’s surface to richly earn its common name of ‘kingcup’. Alan Rowland tells me that a survey by Ian Bennallick, the East Cornwall (vice-county 2) recorder for the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, revealed a total of 407 species of plants on the reserve.

Azure damselflies on bogbean

Azure damselflies on bogbean, Image by Richard Burkmar

Dragonflies and damselflies are other species to look out for through the warm, sunny months, skimming, darting and dashing through the air in pursuit of other insects.

You may not get up close and personal with the wildlife on the lake, but if you are in or near Bude, I think it’s definitely worth viewing Maer Lake. Remember to bring your camera and binoculars. See the our dedicated Maer Lake webpage for a map of where the reserve is located as well as directions.

By Rowena Millar