Sunday 12 November 2023

Worth it in the End 10th November 2023

It was still dark when I rendezvoused with Mark at 6.30am in front of a padlocked gate giving access to Linford Lakes Nature Reserve at Great Linford in Buckinghamshire. A rare Little Crake had been attracting the crowds for the last few days as it passed along a lake edge in front of the reserve's Otter Hide.

Great Linford is one of the villages now encompassed by Milton Keynes and Linford Lakes is managed by a charity called The Parks Trust, formed in 1995 and which is responsible for over 40 parks, woodlands and lakes within the Milton Keynes catchment area.

Access to Linford Lakes is by annual permit for which I paid £20.00 and once paid online I was given the code to unlock the padlock on the gate and the passcode to gain access to the Otter Hide.

Our reason for arriving so early was that we knew from earlier reports the small Otter Hide would be crammed full of people keen to see the crake and if we wanted to see and photograph it we had better get there very early to secure a place at the front.

Still groggy from a 5am start I fumbled with the padlock but finally got the passcode numbers aligned so we could open the gate, drive through and make our way to the reserve's small car park only to find it already quite full with cars. Others had obviously the same idea as us and had got here even earlier and my heart sank at the prospect of the hide being fully occupied.

After some uncertainty where to go we followed a muddy trail for several hundred yards to eventually come upon the hide.We punched in the four digit code and with some trepidation opened the door to find, as we feared, every seat occupied.So it was standing room only.

We stood behind those seated and looked out onto a large, now sunlit, reed fringed lake, its waters mirror smooth.

I  resigned myself to a long wait both for a seat and for the crake to be visible. With the light much improved, we variously sat or stood, waiting to see if the crake would reveal itself.

I have seen two Little Crakes before.The first was a female at Cuckmere Haven in East Sussex which remained in a wet ditch from the 6th to the 16th of March 1985 and was remarkably confiding, allowing you to approach it to within a few feet.The second was a juvenile female at Slimbridge WWT in Gloucestershire on 10th October 2015 which was less cooperative and necessitated a day long vigil in a hide to finally see it. The individual we had come to see today at Linford Lakes also appears to be a juvenile female.They are tiny, no bigger than a Starling and are rare vagrants to Britain with 353 having been recorded since the first way back in 1791, although its normally furtive existence in reedbeds may mean a number go un-noticed.

Little Crakes breed discontinuously from Spain eastwards to central Asia and normally migrate to spend the winter in northeast and east Africa, occasionally straying to west Africa, especially Senegal.

All the images I had seen of the Linford Lakes bird were of it obviously at the edge of the reeds right in front of the hide but it did not quite work out that way for us. Almost an hour had passed before someone behind me announced they could see the crake way over on the left side of the lake threading its way through the edge of the reeds.

Tiny and constantly active it was a job to follow as it scuttled along picking off prey from the dead and broken reed stems protruding from the water. It was the sunlight that highlighted its pale head and breast, betraying its presence as it moved along by the water's edge, the rest of its body brown, streaked, spotted and flecked with cream or white blended to perfection with the variegated hues of the reeds. 

During the hour's wait the hide had reached virtually maximum capacity so you can imagine the result when the crake was finally visible.

Bodies pressed uncomfortably against each other as everyone strained to get a look from the hide's viewing slats. I was obliged to contort my body and bend my back into a very uncomfortable position to stoop low enough to get a view across to the far reed bed  but despite the inconvenience I picked the crake up easily enough.Others wanted to get a photo, although to my mind it was a very long way off for any decent image but it's up to each what they consider acceptable.A man who had never seen one allowed his anxiety to get the better of him and insinuated himself in front of me. Hide etiquette forgotten. I considered saying something but let it go.There would be time enough to see the bird. I had all day.

The crake was visible on and off for the next twenty minutes, always frequenting the distant left side of the lake, hugging the edge of the reeds. It was heading in our direction but it would be a very long time before it got to us in the hide.I resigned myself to a patient vigil but when it  came to an obvious gap in the reeds, rather than cross the open water it reversed and headed  back the way it had come.


It was now gone from our sight deep into the reeds.Some people left the hide having seen it and I got to sit on a bench at the front with Mark. All we had to do now was sit it out and wait for it to eventually get to our side of the lake.Sadly it did not happen.

The hours passed very slowly as everyone scanned the distant reedbed but to no avail. Occasional bird activity alleviated the tedium. Two Great White Egrets, now no longer the rarity they used to be provided a pleasant distraction as they landed on the far side of the lake to fish. Flying on great bowed white wings that seem to gather the air to them, they flew with a leisurely grace, their all white bodies and wings startling against the varied blues of sky and lake. A scuttling Water Rail got someone very excited before they recognised their error and that it was not the Little Crake. A Great Crested Grebe, in front of the hide, surfaced with a large fish, either a Rudd or Roach that looked far too big to swallow  but did in fact disappear down the grebe's gullet after considerable effort. 

The hide remained full with a regular arrival of birders replacing those who left but with nothing to see, least of all the Little Crake. Slowly the sepulchral silence that had been evident since our arrival was abandoned as birders ceased concentrating and commenced chatting amongst themselves.It's a normal reaction and affects many of us as we find time to recognise familiar faces or chat to our neighbours to alleviate the boredom. We were joined by Louise, a friend of Mark and she squashed between us on the unforgiving wooden bench.

The wind had risen since the calm of the morning and as a consequence the hide, with every viewing slat wide open became progressively colder. Noon arrived but still there was no sign of the Little Crake and most people who had been here for some time had ceased looking in earnest,  leaving it to the newcomers, still invigorated with enthusiasm to take up the cause.

A spell of dissing a well known Buckingham birder prone to fantasy provided a rare moment of levity amongst most in the hide. 

Just after one o' clock the crake was seen again, very briefly, prompting a concerted surge to the appropriate viewing slat. Reassuringly the crake appeared to be heading our way and towards the hide but still with a fair extent of reeds to traverse if it was ever to arrive in front of the hide.

I looked at the time and realised I had been here for six hours for about  ten minutes of distant views of the tiny bird.

By two thirty in the afternoon, after the initial optimism of the crake coming our way had long since vanished I had all but abandoned hope and suggested to Mark and Louise we call it quits at four o'clock.Birders in extremis do this sort of thing, setting time limits to maintain a sliver of hope. Mark and myself  would by then have been in the hide for nine hours. 

The damp and cold in the hide had really begun to penetrate my bones and the bench seemed to have gained the unyielding consistency of concrete.My backside ached and much of my body heat had drained away with the hours of inactivity despite layers of warm clothing. 

Three o' clock arrived and still nothing. Eight hours in. Maybe the four o clock deadline could be brought forward? Where on earth was the crake? Surely it was heading in this direction? Almost comatose now I stared blankly at the lake.Only another forty five minutes to go and it would be time to leave.

At just after three fifteen a voice from behind me exclaimed

There it is!.It's just coming out from the reeds on the left, in the water!

All thoughts of cold and discomfort were forgotten, as in unison bodies both seated and standing became galvanised and lurched forward to view the crake. Seated by the central viewng slat we were in prime position to watch as it progressed along the water's edge in front of us

To say it was elusive would be an understatement as it progressed through the dead and broken reeds and stems at the water's edge.So tiny and the exact colour of the dead reeds and their reflections in the water, it was at times hard to discern as  it dodged erratically back and fore, its long toes curled prehensilely around the reed stems, never still for a moment and shunning any open stretches of water no matter how small. Like a miniature Moorhen it furtively slipped through the reeds which annoyingly always seemed to be in the way as they swayed in the strengthening wind, causing the camera to focus on them rather than the crake. 

Its behaviour was typical of a crake in that it didn't like being in the open and would take every opportunity to use the reeds to conceal itself. I did my best as did others but it was incredibly hard to focus on it.

The crake was in front of the hide for less than ten minutes, moving fairly quickly from left to right and then was gone from sight but the reeds ran out further to our right so it had to come back.Everyone tensed, waiting for this to happen and eventually the crake re-appeared heading back towards the hide but then, rather than walk through the reeds as before, it chose to fly with dangling legs across the water and disappeared into the reeds to our left.

It was clearly anxious about the hide and whether it was aware of us I do not know. What we had to accept was it would not be coming back anytime soon.Certainly not today

With utter relief I left the hide.

Maybe I will give it another try next week or possibly not!

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