The site, managed by the Durham Wildlife Trust, covers 120 acres, with habitats including mature mixed woodland, large and small ponds, open scubland and river side footpaths. In addition there is a visitors centre and car park with a very active Winter feeding station close by.
The reserve attracts a wide range of woodland and wetland birds and with the Pennines so close by there is always the chance of seeing interesting raptors passing through.
At the side of the car park is a picnic area and feeding station where bird ringing also takes place periodically. It's one of the best feeding stations in the county enabling very close inspection from 3' - 12' away of species such as Chaffinch, Nuthatch, Coal Tit, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Marsh Tit, Willow Tit, Robin, Dunnock, Greenfinch, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Pheasant, Coot and Moorhen etc. Brambling and Siskin also visit the feeders.
From beside the feeding station a footpath leads you alongside an ancient Alder Wood which is frequented by all of the birds mentioned above including Jay, many of which breed in the woods. A few hundred yards along the path to it's right you begin to see glimpses of a large expanse of water. This is the main body of water on the reserve, Marston Lake. You soon reach the first purpose built hide, the North Hide, a double-decker construction giving superb views over the lake. In Jan - Feb 2003 this hide was the perfect point to view a Bittern that took up residence in the reeds below the hide a mere 50 yards away. The lake itself hold a good selection of water birds and attracts migrating geese as well. Regular sightings include Goldeneye, Mallard, Pochard, Little Grebe, Cormorant, Teal, Tufted Duck, Mute Swan, Coot, Moorhen, Shoveler, Shelduck, Wigeon, Goosander and various Gulls. I saw Little Gull there in Dec 2002 on one occasion.
Leaving the hide and turning right following the circular route around the lake you continue through the Alder woods, which change to predominantly birch and willow and the become a proper mixed woodland including some coniferous trees as you walk alongside the river.
You soon reach the South Hide similar in construction to the North Hide. It gives even better views across a wide expanse of water with the sun being behind you or to your left. Kingfisher can often be seen on either side of the hide or on the island opposite a favourite haunt for Little Grebe and Teal. A wide range of water birds can usually be spotted on the open water to the left of the hide, though a scope is best used.
From the hide continuing the circular walk, you enter a small area of predominantly fir trees before reaching more open rough land where I have seen Green Woodpecker on several occasions. Deer also frequent these areas. An area of sludge beds is due for reclamation and development as a new addition to the site. At this point there is a small deviation you can make, a short additional loop alongside the river, where again Kingfisher can be seen along with Chiffchaff in the Summer. Wren are often seen from quite close too.
Moving on you reach the smaller West Pond. It is a bit more secluded and quieter, offering closer views of many birds from it's single storey hide. Summer 2002 saw a Ring-necked Duck in residence for several months affording excellent views. Sometimes this pond is almost deserted but at others full of life. The short path to the pond often holds Treecreeper, though they can be found around the whole site.
The path then leads back to the car park past another small pond and over a stream, more likely to hold Coot and Moorhen than anything else. A small butterfly garden is to your right as you re-enter the car park.
Other summer visitors include Warblers, Redstarts and the occasional Hoopoe ! Marston Lake is known for it's attraction of many unusual species such as Mandarin Duck, Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, Smew and Pintail which of course are very unpredictable.
All in all it's a superb birdwatching site. It can take several hours to cover properly but can also be done quite quickly if you're just looking for a certain species.
Birds you can see here include:
Feral Pigeon, Stock Dove, Common Wood Pigeon, Common Cuckoo, Common Swift, Eurasian Skylark, Sand Martin, Barn Swallow, Northern House Martin, Meadow Pipit, Pied Wagtail, Common Wren, Dunnock, European Robin, Common Redstart, Eurasian Blackbird, Fieldfare, Song Thrush, Redwing, Sedge Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Common Whitethroat, Garden Warbler, Wood Warbler, Common Buzzard, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Kestrel, White-throated Dipper, Grey Wagtail, Blackcap, Common Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Goldcrest, Spotted Flycatcher, European Pied Flycatcher, Common Magpie, Eurasian Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, Common Starling, House Sparrow, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Chaffinch, Brambling, European Greenfinch, European Goldfinch, Eurasian Siskin, Eurasian Linnet, Northern Redpoll, Lesser Redpoll, Common Crossbill, Eurasian Bullfinch, Yellowhammer, Reed Bunting, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Green Woodpecker, Eurasian Nuthatch, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Willow Tit, Tawny Owl, Chaffinch, Great Cormorant, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Crow, Common Pochard, Little Grebe, Little Gull, Great Crested Grebe, Common Kingfisher
Access and Facilities
Located off the A68 on the banks of the River Wear between Witton-le-wear and Bishop Auckland. It is signposted from both the A68 and A689 at High Grange. Access by car or public transport.
The centre has several monitors connected up to cameras of nest boxes and the feeding station. Good footpaths cover the site which has no steep inclines enabling easy access for the disabled. The river side path can be a bit muddy in wet weather.
The visitors centre (open weekends and Bank Holidays) is well worth a call in before you explore the site as the staff are very friendly and helpful and knowledgeable of what birds are about. Several leaflets and books are available too along with a cafe. At the rear of the centre is an observation tower giving distant views over the largest lake.
Grid ref. NZ161315
Durham Wildlife Trust
Low Barns Nature Reserve
Tel: 01388 488728
Article by IanF