Wednesday, 8 March 2017

A Biffin at Calvert 7th March 2017


OK. I confess there is no such thing as a Biffin. Many years ago a novice birding friend of mine misidentified a hen pheasant exploding from some rushes as a Bittern but in the unexpected excitement, not only got his identification wrong but got his words scrambled and exclaimed Biffin! I collapsed with laughter and so did he when corrected and ever since on seeing a Bittern this hilarious episode comes to mind and causes a smile.So please forgive my indulgence.

Today was another calm and sunny day so I tried my luck at Calvert Lake which, if you have the patience and time, can sometimes provide close views of Bitterns which spend the winter there, living secretively in the small reed beds just below the hide.

Bitterns in the UK have had a bad time of it as destruction, draining and degrading of their wetland habitats resulted in a decline from eighty booming males in 1950 to an all time low of eleven in 1997. Since then the RSPB and English Nature have practiced active management by enhancing existing wetland habitats and the creation of new reed beds such as those at the RSPB's Lakenheath Fen in Suffolk and my local RSPB reserve at Otmoor in Oxfordshire. This pro-active management has resulted in the population of booming males in the UK increasing by 2015, to one hundred and fifty. Bitterns in winter do not require huge reed beds in which to live as evidenced by those at Calvert Lake  and wintering Bitterns can now be seen in similar small areas of reeds in the heart of London at the WWT's London Wetlands Centre. 

I arrived at Calvert Lake just after nine and had the somewhat decrepit small hide to myself. I opened the viewing slat, adjusted the bench and five minutes later I was all set with camera and lens resting on the shelf whilst I looked down onto the sunlit reed beds and lake below.


The small doorless Hide at Calvert Lake

The view of Calvert Lake from the Hide.The three reed beds are prominent.
The Bittern commuted between the two reed beds on the left of the picture

The narrow channel and flattened causeway of reeds between the two beds
is clearly visible
The springlike weather was having a definite effect on the birds. The lake was noisy with continuous complaining squawks from the soon to be breeding Black headed Gulls, disputing ownership of the rafts or chasing each other in acrobatic, aggressive flights around the lake. Cormorants perched precariously on the thin guard rails of the floating nesting rafts in the centre of the lake, the huge black webs of their feet wrapping round the rail like a skin of black polythene. Occasionally they would express displeasure with deep guttural groans whenever their space was invaded by another coming too close. A few Tufted Ducks dived for food, the males bobbing up onto the water's surface like black and white corks, their white flanks gleaming in the sunshine. A pair of Little Grebes, now with breeding finery of chestnut head and breast and citrone yellow gapes whinneyed to each other as they floated or moved like rounded clockwork sponges on the shallows by the reeds. Coots endlessly bickered and bullied amongst themselves and with any other water bird that came near and caused offence, often flying aggressively at the object of their displeasure before turning their back on it and raising their wings to form a tent of black over their body in a display of defiance.

I surveyed the three reed beds below me, nothing more than triangles of closely packed, buff coloured, dead reed stems, each bed separated by a channel of water but there was no sign of a Bittern. Twenty minutes had passed since my arrival and this could go either way. I could wait hours like last time, but happily on looking up from consulting my phone, a Bittern had materialised out of the reeds into the channel between two of the reed beds below me. What's more it was at the right end of the narrow channel, that is the end nearest the hide and stood in the sun on a little causeway of flattened dead reeds running across the channel.













It was completely at ease, in no apparent hurry and just stood for seven or so minutes surveying the reeds and water around it. It shook its feathers as if glad to be out of the constricting surrounds of the reed bed. It was a secluded place where it stood and the Bittern obviously felt perfectly secure but then walked on legs and giant feet of pale green across to the next reed bed and melted into the fastness of the reed stems and was gone. This was a good start. A great start in fact. There is nothing like an early success to put one's spirits at a high level and I settled back hoping for another sighting but knowing full well it might take quite a time until I got one.

Two local birders joined me in the hide shortly after and we waited, but an hour and a half later there was still no sign of the Bittern and they grew tired of looking and departed, one to another hide at the other end of the lake and the other to home. I was quite content where I was, relishing the quiet and now my sole occupancy, once again, of the small hide.The time moved on and I amused myself by taking images of the local Robin and Great Tits coming close to the hide, in front of which I had sprinkled some seed. 

Great Tit
Time continued to drift by and then just before noon the Bittern re-emerged from the reed bed and waded across the channel back to the reed bed from which it had originally come, in what now seemed an eternity before.




It was not on view for long, two minutes at the most, before once more melting into the reeds and out of sight. Another forty five minutes passed and then I was rejoined by the birder who had gone to the other hide. He enquired if the Bittern had re-appeared in his absence and I had to tell him yes, and it was now back in the middle reed bed directly in front of us. We sat, looking out, waiting but after an hour all we had seen was a typically furtive Water Rail, which dashed across the channel from one reed bed to the other and then almost immediately back again. Here and gone in a matter of seconds.

Time continued to move inexorably onwards, the sun illuminating the reed stems to a golden brown and then when a cloud moved across the sun, the stems turned dull brown only to become gold again on the re-emergence of the sun. An early Brimstone butterfly busied itself along the sunny bank below the Hide.

Another hour and a half had now passed slowly. I decided to give myself another half  hour until two o' clock and then depart if there was no further sign of the Bittern. I am glad I did, as just before  the appointed hour the Bittern re-emerged in precisely the same place to where I first saw it in the morning. It stood four square on the flattened causeway of reeds completely out in the open, almost as if enjoying the sun and not being constricted by the close confines of the reed bed. 


Again it was in no hurry, no doubt having fed well whilst in the reed bed, and I fervently hoped it would remain and not cross back and disappear into the other reed bed as it had done before. It remained and how. For just over thirty minutes I enjoyed spectacularly close views of this strange creature, so reptilian in its movements, stealth personified and so beautifully  plumaged in its intricate camouflage of varied shades of buff, streaked and barred with brown and black. Its matt black crown became more obvious as it bent its head to preen its breast and on raising its head an orange brown eye gleamed as it caught the sun. 






A rather charming description of its cryptic plumage came from the artist Abbott Handerson Taylor in 1909, when he wrote:  Reed like patterns occur also.......on the necks of some of the true herons. The beautiful European Bittern has kindred markings with a strong admixture of a richly brindled grass pattern - a pattern at once bold and subtle, whose obliterative effect in the bird's normal environment must be consummate

The Bittern preened on and off, shuffling and ruffling its feathers into a loosened conglomeration that caused it to enlarge in size, and alternately and slowly stretched its wings out to their full extent, then fully relaxed, stood on one green leg, the other leg and foot retracted into its loose white belly feathers. It flexed the long toes of the retracted foot and picked at one of the toes with the point of its olive grey bill. On two occasions it opened its bill wide as if to regurgitate something, revealing a startling coral pink gape and long thin tongue. At its widest opening the gape made the feathers on its head flatten, the open gape extending almost back to the eye and imparting a look that was both reptilian and unappealing. I was, however lapping all this up as most of this behaviour would not usually be seen outside the fastness of the reed bed.


































Relaxed and hunched in round shouldered repose for most of the time it would occasionally stretch its neck skywards, elongating its silhouette, a movement called bitterning, before resuming a more rounded relaxed profile. A small fish attracted its attention and it extended head and neck downwards to seize it. The attenuated and contorted profiles it adopted were a constant source of interest as it whiled away some down time in its secluded patch between the reeds.











I wanted it to go on forever as I was well aware how very fortunate it was to have such extended views of this most secretive and shy of birds, but all good things eventually come to an end and the Bittern slowly bent its head and body forward and  methodically and slowly walked into the reed bed and was gone.





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