A dull and grey day, the shortest day of the year dawned, and now with all the Christmas shopping done I was devoid of care and had a free morning, but even so it was not until after ten that I managed to get out of the house. I was none too sure where to go but of one thing I was sure, I wanted to go birding, somewhere solitary where I could sit and allow the stresses and strains both physical and mental to slip from me.
But where to go? Being a weekday there was a good chance that I could find somewhere to myself and in the end I settled for going over the county border into Buckinghamshire and to a lake where I knew there would be a Bittern. One or more are present most winters although they do not breed there. It took about an hour to get to my destination, passing through the damp and winter dull surrounds of rural Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. On the back roads, bounded by stark, flailed twiggy hedges it was as if the world was stilled. Occasional houses in small villages I passed through, defiant against the gloom were lit with festive lights and decorations that somehow seemed to enhance the sense of abandon that beset the countryside rather than bring cheer. I saw not one human soul.
I parked the car in the tiny parking spot by the reserve and walked down to the small hide which from its elevated position overlooked the lake below it.
At the edge of the lake were reeds made into separate triangles by channels cut through them and then, beyond was the expanse of the lake with more reeds on the other side.The winter reeds, dead now and golden brown, from their tassled tops to their very base formed dense stands of thousands of stalks, the tops occasionally wafted into motion by a sigh of wind but soon subsiding into a drooping immobility again.
The small doorless hide was dank, dark and spartan and smelt of the earth and dead leaves that comprised the steep bank leading down to the reeds and water's edge in front of the hide. Alone, I sat and contemplated the scene knowing that it was likely I was in for a long wait but knowing that this solitude, depressing for some but not for me would allow me time for quiet contemplation and to generally bring body and soul together before the inevitable but welcome onslaught of festivity and conviviality in the coming days of Christmas.
A couple of Fieldfares chackered manically in the dense hawthorns behind the hide, clumsily flouncing in the twigs, alarmed by the failure of the twigs to support them, as with outspread wings, they strived to balance and strip that one particular berry that took their fancy and always seems to be the most distant and hardest to reach.
Robins and Great Tits flitted around the hide looking almost affronted at the unfilled feeders, then dropped to the ground to seek any nuts or seeds that may have fallen and not been found. A Marsh Tit called distantly and a male Pheasant was made exotic by the contrast of its outlandish plumage with the bare featureless hawthorns and leaf mouldy ground it trod.
A Water Rail squealed like a piglet from the reeds below and then ran across the small open channel of water between two of the reed beds. A dark silhouette against the water. Tail flicking it picked its way through some cut reed stems on the edge of the reeds, never allowing itself to be truly out in the open but constantly seeking the assurance of reed cover to conceal its movements and presence. A Cetti's Warbler briefly churred an alarm as it flew to the base of the reeds and was visible for just a moment as an indistinct dark brown form moving deeper into the reeds.
Time passed but there was no movement that betrayed the presence of a Bittern. Extraneous noise came from the road behind the hide and from the tree hidden railway on the far side of the lake but here I was, if you like, marooned in an area of special silence away from human disturbance, as if the extraneous noises were of a separate existence that I was conscious of but untouched by it.
I looked once more at the channel cut through the reeds to my right and a movement caught my eye.It looked like a small mound of reeds was moving, disturbed by a non existent wind but it was in fact a Bittern, just emerged from the reed bed and shaking its feathers back into alignment. It moved further out of cover to where the water formed its own channel through the cut reeds and walked slowly along at the side of the reeds searching for food.
They are such incredible birds to encounter, always bringing me excitement at their discovery as they are so secretive, seldom seen and there is always the nagging anxiety that when you do encounter one it will only be for a brief time before it will retreat back into the reeds again and become invisible.
Today however I was on my own, the hide was quiet, the lake was undisturbed and the Bittern obviously felt secure in the narrow water channel flanked by the reed beds. Its movements, as ever were slow and considered and involved frequent stops for no apparent reason, when its neck and head would be held high and pointed at an angle upwards in an inquisitorial manner before it retracted its neck and resumed its more normal rounded form. It took a spell standing on some reeds preening just out of my sight, although I could discern the occasional movement through the obscuring reeds but then it re-emerged and came nearer along the channel, raising high its large green feet as it waded carefully through the water. It stretched a wing and then stopped. Something had troubled it in the reeds and it raised its neck and inflated it almost like an angry cobra before creeping into the reeds and disappearing from sight.
I guessed that it was walking through the small reed bed and would hopefully come out on the side that was nearer and opposite me and after some twenty minutes it duly emerged as predicted. Never leaving the security of the edge of the reeds it sidled along until it came to the very tip of the reed bed extending out into the lake and could go no further without having to wade through an open expanse of water to the next small reed bed. It stood, slowly almost imperceptibly moving its head and then extending its neck upwards to its full extent. Cautious and suspicious almost of its own shadow, it stood erect, like part of the reed bed, its buff, brown and black marked plumage in harmony with the reeds in which it stood. For a full two minutes it was immobile before flying with legs dangling across the open stretch of water and into the next reed bed. I waited as before and the whole procedure of it passing through the reed bed and emerging in the channel on the other side was repeated. I watched as it waded through the water, not stopping this time and disappeared for the final and last time into yet another area of reeds.
The Bittern had quite remarkably been on view for at least forty minutes. A great start to Christmas.