Tuesday 26 November 2019

A Slimbridge Bittern 26th November 2019

For the last couple of weeks a Bittern, maybe more than the one, has been reported from a reedbed at Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Gloucestershire and has obviously been showing well if the numerous photos, now on social media, are anything to go by.

It is usual for one or more Bitterns to be present every year at Slimbridge but in some years they can be seen better than others, although even in a good year a sighting can never be guaranteed. For instance, I was told that last Sunday the Bittern was not seen at all at Slimbridge but maybe the hide was very crowded, being a weekend, and the inevitable noise and disturbance from the constant comings and goings of people visiting the hide may have caused the Bittern to remain sequestered in the reeds.

I had a free morning today so made the hour's car journey from my home to Slimbridge, arriving exactly when the grounds open at 9.30am. I wanted to be first there. The hide from which to see the particular  Bittern I had in mind is at the far end of the grounds, so I made my way past the various pens holding wildfowl from all over the world and, coming to the hide, climbed the steps to the upper viewing floor.

As planned, I found the hide empty at this comparatively early hour, and ensconced myself in the far corner where I had the most favourable and panoramic view over a reed bed with four obvious rides cut through it to facilitate seeing the Bittern if it crossed from one area of reeds to another. Beyond, in the distance lay The Dumbles, a wide flat area of water flashes and fields running out to the River Severn.

The reed bed with rides cut through it
It had been raining for most of the night but the rain had now ceased leaving a legacy of damp and dullness, creating a sullen atmosphere that pervaded the land, aided and abetted by a solid blanket of grey cloud. A brisk southwest wind was blowing, enough to be uncomfortably chilling as it came through an open viewing window behind me. I put up the hood on my goosedown jacket and felt the better for it. All in all it looked singularly unwelcoming outside the hide. What one would call a typical raw November's day.

There was no sign of a Bittern when I scanned the reedbed so I transferred my attention to the huge numbers of wildfowl and waders resting either on the flashes or feeding in the wet fields. A large, mixed flock of sleeping Black tailed Godwits, Knot and Golden Plover stood in the shallow water of the main flash,  the grey bodies of the Godwits and Knot, packed close to one another and facing into the wind. Ducks in the form of many Eurasian Wigeon and lesser numbers of Eurasian Teal were hunkered down amongst them, together with small groups of Northern Pintail, the males chocolate and white heads and necks distinctive even from long range.

A Peregrine, so distant it was only an outline, was perched on a skeletal fence by the river and Lapwing, taking alarm at the slightest provocation, periodically rose in huge numbers into the sky before turning into the wind and gently spiralling down on paddle shaped black and white wings, like so many falling leaves.

Fifteen minutes had passed since my first arrival in the hide and as I turned my attention back to the dead reeds below me I caught sight of a Bittern, its cryptic body colouring of buff, brown and black matching to perfection the tangle of dead reeds it was slinking into, having crossed one of the narrow open rides un-noticed. 

I had been too casual and chided myself for having allowed my attention to wander.

I would not make such a mistake again and now kept my eyes firmly on the reeds anticipating the Bittern moving through the reeds it had slipped into and emerging into the next ride. Fifteen minutes later, my suspicions were confirmed as the Bittern did just that and then spent  ten minutes on view at the furthest end of the ride.

I again marvelled at the way its plumage replicated the pattern of the reeds, a fragmentation of dark and light, buff and brown feathering, blurring its outline.

Although sometimes marginally obscured by reed stems the Bittern showed itself well enough for me to feel satisfied. They are such strange birds, stealth personified, one minute crouched with head and neck partly extended and body held horizontally, the next, with neck stretched vertically to its full extent, its the head pointing upwards, almost quizzically, the rounded bulk of its body held in line on sturdy pale green legs that seem too short and out of proportion for such a large bird.

The Bittern was hunting for food and adopting that curious posture where it stands stock still and holds the tip of its bill just below the water, presumably to sense any passing fish or amphibian. It did not linger for long doing this and with apparent lack of success, the bird slowly moved on, stalking out of sight behind the reeds, following a narrow channel of water into obscurity.

I was delighted with this early success. Sometimes you can wait for hours for a Bittern to appear.  At other times it just does not happen at all and one has to recognise defeat, give it up and wait for another day, but not this time. I had seen the Bittern and that was all that was required to make the day a success.

Other birders arrived and the hide became more populated but the Bittern, presumably well inside the extensive area of reeds it had entered a while ago, remained invisible. I had been the only one to see it so far.

Another two hours were mine before I had to leave to get back home for an appointment and not un naturally I hoped the Bittern might appear again before I had to leave. In the meantime I amused myself watching the comings and goings of the birdlife beyond the hide.

Two Common Cranes were the highlight, announcing their approach with bugling calls as they flew from the flat grassland by the river and towards the hide, coming closer and closer, eventually passing over the hide before planing down to land in the grounds beyond. I found three more feeding far out on the saltings by the river.

Common Cranes
Four adult Bewick's Swans, their pristine whiteness almost luminescent in the grey overcast conditions, flew past the hide and then circled and flew back, following the river, as a flock of Russian White-fronted Geese flew the other way to land on an area called Bottom New Piece, joining a vast assembly of Lapwing and Canada Geese and, if you looked closely, one could see around a dozen Ruff and many more Dunlin running amongst them.

Sad to say the Bittern never did re-appear during my stay and as the hide became increasingly busy, I was glad to leave. 

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