Thursday 22 October 2020

A Bittern Vigil 22nd October 2020

Calvert Jubilee Nature Reserve is managed by BBOWT (Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust) and has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons. It has the misfortune to lie in the way of the ludicrous folly that is HS2 and much of the reserve has been decimated by this ridiculous, way over budget, vanity project demonstrating just how out of touch our Government is from the everyday world the rest of us live in. It has destroyed countless trees, robbed people of their homes and is an environmental disaster, yet still it goes on.

Fortunately that part of the reserve that harbours the two bird hides and the lake with its reedbeds that  Bitterns frequent has been left intact and undisturbed for now and hopefully this will remain the situation. 

I knew from earlier reports that a Bittern had been regularly seen here in the last month. One or more winter here every year and it is a well known location for those who wish an encounter with this secretive bird.

I rose early today in order to get to the hide at first light. The hide is very small and I wanted to ensure I got a seat as occupation is restricted to three persons (not that you can get any more than four persons in there anyway), courtesy of the ongoing virus crisis.

I arrived just as dawn was about to break. As anticipated I was the first to arrive and took my place on one of the unforgiving benches in a hide even more draughty than usual due to all the viewing slats being purposely left open due to the virus.The hide incidentally has not had a door for years.

Across the lake that lies in front of the hide the sky commenced to be underlit by yellow and pink, a gash of pale colour heralding the coming morning in an otherwise monochrome landscape.Slowly, as the light improved, the familiar features of the lake appeared and the sounds of waking birds came from out on the water. Gulls were calling, while Coots and Moorhens added their explosive metallic calls and guttural croaks respectively.

I became conscious of a constant gurgling, murmuring background noise coming from the reeds. Starlings were roosting and being late risers they were communing amongst themselves, hidden deep in the golden leaves and stems of the reedbeds. Their conversational chatter went on for at least half an hour and we were an hour into the early morning before, with a roar of many wings, the assembly lifted out of the reedbeds, forming up into a close packed cloud of around five thousand individuals, swept up above the reeds, described a tight circle and were away to feed in their chosen fields.

For forty five minutes I saw very little else. Six Little Grebes did their rubber duck/powder puff impressions on the still and sheltered water in a channel between two of the four small reed beds in front of me.A Water Rail squealed and two chased each other from reedbed to reedbed.

At 7.30 a Bittern appeared at the edge of a reedbed. One minute it was just reeds the next it was the more solid form of a Biitern, coloured exactly as the reeds it stood by. Hardly visible to the naked eye its profile camouflaged by the reeds that stretched away either side of it. Its head snaked out, held in a pose then lowered for it to dip its bill into the water, holding it there motionless for a couple of minutes before it waded across the narrow channel  of water to the adjacent reedbed. 

It stood, unmoving, as Bitterns often do and then jumped, flapped its wings and inflated its neck feathers in a gesture of aggression. The cause of its alarm was an errant reed stem waving wildly in a gust of wind, the reed's involuntary movement an annoyance to the Bittern.

Treading with exaggerated deliberation it walked beside the channel of water before entering the reeds and was gone.

That would be it for a few hours and I knew from previous experience there would be a long wait before the Bittern re-appeared. I hunkered down on the hard bench prepared to sit it out.

The hours passed slowly and I spent time, as everyone does now in such situations distracting myself by fiddling with my phone, checking twitter, emails and birdnews and when done with that, staring out at the lake and reeds in contemplation. I needed a distraction. A Green Woodpecker obliged by bounding past the hide and landing on a nearby hawthorn trunk, clinging to the damp corrugated bark, its white eye expressionless, wary, before dropping out of sight.

That was really all there was to see during the five hours I sat and waited. Yes, five whole hours. I kidded myself that such a vigil was good for the soul but it is more testament to my stubborness. I knew the Bittern was in the reedbed somewhere and was bound to venture out eventually. It was just a matter of waiting.

I was joined by a photographer, newly discovering the wonders of nature and birds in particular and who had never seen a Bittern. He told me he had heard that here was as good a place as any to achieve his ambition. 

I explained that I had been here for five hours and had only seen the Bittern once for ten minutes early in the morning but, in order to not ruin his day, added he stood a very good chance that the Bittern would re-appear shortly as it had been invisible for such a long time.

Half an hour later and you can guess what happened. From out of the reedbed stalked the bittern and my companion clicked away happily with his camera as the Bittern crossed the small channel of water and entered the opposite reed bed.

My companion was overjoyed. He had seen his first ever Bittern after considerable efforts in other places that had met with failure to see one. Forgive me a wry smile. He waited just half an hour whilst I had sat for five hours but I was really pleased for him. Really I was!

He was about to leave thinking that was it.

'If you wait it might walk through the reed bed it has just entered and come out the other side' I told him


'Yes, it sometimes happens that way.'

He sat down again and for twenty minutes we sat, silent and expectant and then in some excitement he exclaimed '

'There it is! Its just coming out of the reeds!'

Indeed it was and treated us to another 'bittern stalk' through the water. Ever so slowly, neck outstretched as if uncertain about being detached from the sanctuary of the reeds, it cautiously moved across the open channel and as before disappeared into the next of the four small reed beds opposite us 

'Fantastic! I never dreaned I would see it so well' he enthused.

I suggested that we wait and see if it came out of the reed bed as this would give him one more chance to photograph it as it crossed the last channel of water into the fourth and final reedbed.

Twenty minutes passed and there the Bittern stood on the edge of the reeds and this time dallied for a while before crossing the channel and was gone into the last of the reedbeds.

'That's it for sure,' my companion announced.

I had to agree and we left the hide.

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