Saturday 23 October 2021

Once Bittern 23rd October 2021

Every year, if I am able, I make an effort to go and see a Bittern, sometimes more than one, which spend every autumn and winter at a lake on a small nature reserve near to my home. Such a visit  necessitates getting up to arrive before dawn, as the hide that overlooks the lake is very small and can at times get crowded by folk with a similar intent to mine.

I arrived just before the dawn and sat in the cold and unsurprisingly unoccupied hide. Unloved, dank and gloomy, it has no door, and I looked out on a monochrome world before me, the lake a dull silver centrepiece in otherwise dark and indeterminate surrounds. Gradually, almost imperceptibly the dawn asserted itself so I could see the lake was studded with a myriad of dark bodies floating on its placid waters. Gulls and geese, hundreds of them, all had come here last night to roost..

On the far bank the trees became backlit by a sky turned a shocking, apochryphal pink, grey strips of fading cloud backlit to purple, like frown lines on a brow, framing skeletal trees that stood high on a rise above the far side of the lake. A chorus line of trees, their natural beauty in stark contrast to what they masked on the other side. A swathe of devastation, flattened earth and felled trees, evidence of the folly that is HS2 and that has consumed half this reserve.

The reedbeds which provide sanctuary for the Bitterns became more visible, revealing the muted colours of autumn; gold, drab green and oatmeal brown. The gulls were first to leave the lake, in the half light, individual gulls lifting off and circling the lake, tarrying until other gulls performing the same manouevre joined them, for no gull likes to travel on its own, preferring to fly in a formation with its fellows.

This left the Greylag Geese swimming on the lake but they too were no longer idling but had a sense of purpose about them. All were faced into the wind. Greylags are incapable of doing anything without making a song and dance about it. Incorrigibly noisy, they cackle and bray as they swim in separate groups, alert now with heads held high on stiff upright necks. The cries of each group in turn grow more insistent and agitated, reaching a crescendo which pressages their departure. One after the other, the groups depart at intervals, calling to each other in exuberance as if urging each other onwards, up and away from the lake.

Eventually none were left and the lake was silent apart from the  manic tittering calls of Little Grebes,  and the pugnacious exclamations of Coots. It was light now but the promise of a sunrise had been peremptorily extinguished by grey cloud forming a depressing shroud over the land.  

Watching and waiting for a Bittern to appear here can be a matter of moments or hours. Usually it is the latter but today was to be an exception as a Bittern soon rose from the reed bed right in front of me and flew in a graceless flurry of wings and trailing legs across a channel of water cut through the reeds to the next reedbed, where it flopped heavily down into the reeds and was immediately invisible. A brief sighting but enough to enthuse and send a shiver of excitement through me. Everyone likes to see a Bittern, its retiring nature and strange habits bring a great sense of reward and discovery when one finally reveals itself.

It was not long before the Bittern had made its way through the reeds and emerged at the side of the reeds by another channel of water. It stood hunched and fluffed against the reeds. its straw coloured plumage overlaid with black markings rendering it almost as the reeds and here it remained for a good few minutes. It was in no hurry. Bitterns never are, even when stalking after food, progressing with infinite and ponderous slowness through and alongside their reedy home.  This was beyond today's Bittern which stood for a good fifteen minutes doing little apart from occasionally moving its head. Eventually it extended its neck and slowly waded across the shallow channel of water, entered the next reed bed and was gone.

I had been here for the best part of three hours. No one else had come. I could wait and the Bittern might appear again but a Pectoral Sandpiper had been found at Port Meadow in nearby Oxfordshire. It provided the stimulus needed to quit the hide's unforgiving hard bench, exercise my cold limbs and rejoin the outside world.

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