Thursday 16 January 2020

The HS2 Bittern 15th January 2020

Each year I make a trip to BBOWT's (Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust) twenty two hectare Calvert Jubilee Wildlife Reserve in Buckinghamshire to see the wintering Bitterns that spend their days in the sectioned reedbeds, that are situated around the lake below a tiny viewing hide. 

The reed beds and lake as viewed from the hide.The channel where the Bittern was first seen is to the left
The Bitterns do not breed here but Calvert is well known as a prime site to observe Bitterns in winter, provided you possess the attributes of persistence and patience.  Only small numbers of Bitterns, mainly from Germany and Sweden immigrate to Britain each winter so it's maybe unlikely that the Bitterns here are from Europe or Scandinavia and it has been suggested by some, although there is no proof, that the Bitterns at Calvert may be from the nearby RSPB's Otmoor Reserve, which lies just over the border in Oxfordshire and where they do breed.

Calvert Jubilee has made the national news recently as it is the latest example of the folly and disgrace that is HS2, destroying yet another reserve of irreplaceable habitat and extinguishing up to three rare hairstreak butterfly species on the reserve in the process. Not only that but HS2 took it upon themselves to commence felling trees on the reserve late last year without permission from BBOWT and it was only after a public outcry that they desisted and apologised but by then it was too late, the damage had been done.

The environmental devastation that is being wrought by HS2 is tragic and the cost to environmental sites that stand in its path is enormous and a national tragedy. Five internationally protected wildlife sites, six hundred and ninety three local wildlife sites, such as Calvert, and one hundred and eight ancient woodlands will be destroyed because of this nonsensical vanity project. I look forward to learning exactly how HS2 proposes to achieve the impossible by restoring to their 'original state'  the ancient woodlands they plan to devastate.

The financial cost of HS2 is also running out of control. Now, way over the original budget of thirty two billion pounds, it is estimated it will cost seventy to eighty billion pounds, possibly over a hundred billion. It is truly incomprehensible and all to cut forty minutes off a train journey! How much better could this money be used for social care or the beleagured NHS? 

I left my home at five thirty this morning to ensure I could secure one of the four places that is all the small but popular hide can offer. I need not have worried, as in my anxiety I arrived in the dark, having wildly miscalculated how long it took to get to Calvert, which is just over the border from my own county of Oxfordshire.

So pitch dark was it at the reserve I needed the torch on my phone to guide me down the wet, treacherously leaf slippery path to the hide. A hide that frankly has seen better days, being minus a door and shamefully strewn with litter.

I sat on an unforgiving hard wooden bench and awaited the first glimmer of dawn. All I could currently see, looking out from the hide, were the specially cut channels of water, gleaming in the moonlight, that run between the dark shapes of the separate small reed beds but slowly this abstract vision metamorphosed into something more definite, as the light improved.

Two dark shapes were the first discernible signs of life on the water in front of the reeds. Their size was exaggerated by the fact they were ill defined in the half light but by their actions I knew they were Moorhens.

A Water Rail squealed, to be immediately answered by another. A challenge or a greeting? Birds were stirring but hard to see in the half darkness. Shortly afterwards a rustling commotion of wings beating hard against the reeds, directly in front and below the hide, announced the stirring of something larger, which landed on a small strip of mud in the channel. It was a Bittern. It had been roosting in the top of the reeds, by the channel, invisible in the darkness. Bitterns roost in reeds by climbing up to just below the top of the reeds and then grab a bunch of stems with each foot and remain there for the night without moving. To us nothing can seem more uncomfortable and precarious but to the Bittern it is clearly the opposite. 

The Bittern's outline was defined by the pale water behind the strip of mud it had landed on. In my binoculars, with their greater light gathering power, I could just make out the pattern of its plumage.To my naked eyes it was a hulking shape and no more.

It was 7.26 am and for five minutes the Bittern stood ruffling feathers and preening, relieved no doubt to no longer have to cling to the reed stems. After five minutes it stalked into the reed bed on the other side of the channel and was gone.

I settled for what is usually a long wait for it to re-appear. Bitterns never do anything in a hurry, moving with stealth and at an almost funereal pace through the reeds, hunting fish and amphibians in the shallow water, content in their reed fastness, where they are concealed from view amongst the inumerable stems.

The light was now much brighter and I could clearly see birds moving in the channels of water between the reed beds and further out on the lake. Little Grebes swam close to the edge of the reeds, forever nervous of venturing too far from the cover of the reed stems into which they  would insinuate their tiny rounded forms at the slightest hint of danger. Further out on the lake, Coots were wasting no time in coming into conflict with others of their kind, hurtling across the water to face up to a perceived rival, the protagonists often joined by their respective mates and even other Coots, the latter birds seeming to be unable to resist joining a fight. There is nothing these pugnacious birds love more. Their punctuated, explosive calls, 'tenk tenk'  accompanied their combat as they sat back in the water and battered each other's breast with their huge lobed feet.

Closer, at the edge of the channel below me, a Water Rail ventured into the open from the reeds, nervously strutting around the muddy patch previously occupied by the Bittern. The rail's behaviour was remarkable in that this normally ultra shy bird showed no compunction to keep to cover and although the very paragon of anxiety, as is the way with this species, it remained continuously in the open between the two reed beds for quite a long time.

Another normally secretive bird, a Cetti's Warbler, brown and grey with a broad rounded tail, threaded its mouse like way through the reed stems, almost at water level, granting an all too rare glimpse of itself. Normally they are heard rather than seen, announcing their hidden presence with a loud exclamation of cheery notes.

The time passed slowly and apart from occasional further forays into the open by the Water Rail, to keep me mildly entertained, it was attritional. The cold and dampness in the hide permeated my very bones. My feet became painfully numb, as I sat immobile on the unforgiving hard bench, sequestered in the dank interior of the decrepit hide.

The star bird was conspicuously absent from the ensuing three cold hours which passed so very slowly. Other visitors to the hide came and went, boredom and cold eventually persuading them to seek alternative entertainment. I continued to sit it out, determined to get a better view of the Bittern. 

At just before noon a diversion came in the unexpected arrival of a BBC cameraman and reporter who entered the hide accompanied by two BBOWT wardens.

Their huge video camera and enormous tripod half filled the tiny hide.The cameraman apologised for the disturbance. My fellow birding occupant of the hide fled. I shrugged and told the cameraman not to worry about me. They explained they were doing a news item for BBC Southeast for tonight's programme. Calvert was to be the lead story, highlighting the destruction and environmental vandalism (my words not theirs) that is HS2.

They enquired of the Bittern and were disappointed when I informed them that I had not seen it for over three hours. Just as I spoke the Bittern flew up from the reed bed it had walked into hours ago and flew past us on broad, barred wings and crash landed into another reed bed to our right. It inelegantly and slowly, sank down the reed stems into obscurity.

Why now of all times? I had sat here for three numbing hours and distracted by the film crew had missed the opportunity to get a picture of the Bittern in flight, flying right past the hide. Unfortunately the BBC cameraman missed it too as he was concentrating on setting up his equipment. He did not seem too worried as he told me he had some nice shots of swans, ducks and coots. Quite.

Bitterns possess a unique aura. Almost reptilian in their deliberate movements as they stalk on sturdy green legs and huge feet  through their aquatic habitat. There are frequent stops, as if the bird is uncertain, and requires to orientate itself and check all is well. 

When walking and not alarmed it carries its body and head almost horizontally while one large foot is placed down as the opposite leg and foot are raised horizontally to its chest, in alternate large steps.

When it stops the Bittern will often extend its very long neck as high as it will go and allow the feathers to fall loose so its thick neck becomes twice the normal diameter. It will then stand motionless for quite some time before taking the next step, its head and bill inclined at an upwards angle. its brownish orange eyes looking almost cross eyed as they look along the formidable bill. Part of their weird charm is that they are so unlike a typical bird in their behaviour, slow and ponderous rather than imbued with rapid movement, maintaining that mystique of concealment as their stocky, bulky body, is for the most part concealed for long periods in reeds.The uncertainty of when one will appear is a constant concern to any watcher as is the anxiety of whether, if one is seen in the open, it will remain as such for an extended period.

The BBC reporter approached me and asked if I would pose for them by pointing my camera and lens at the lake. 

'Of course. Is this OK?' I enquired as I focused not on the absent Bittern but a Coot swimming between the reed beds. 

'That's perfect. Thanks. Just hold that pose until I say stop.' 

They took their sequence and then asked. 

'Can we take one from behind you,  over your shoulder, looking out to the lake through the viewing slat, showing how the hide is used by birders and photographers?'

'Certainly. No problem at all.

And that was it and they made for the door or at least where the door would have been.

No sooner had they got out of the hide than the Bittern stalked out of the reed bed and commenced to slowly wade across the narrow channel of water to the reed bed on the other side. I called to the departing cameraman 

'The Bittern is here, its coming out of the reed bed. Hurry!

He rushed back and thankfully the Bittern was taking its time, wading slowly through the water with great deliberation and he got some film of it. As the Bittern moved across the channel of water and through broken spikes of long dead reed stems I counted my blessings, as often they will fly across such an 'open channel' from one reed bed to another, reluctant to expose themselves in an area without cover, no matter how small. Their shyness and reclusive personality is legendary but this individual bucked the trend as it waded in slow and stately fashion through the water,  even stopping to try its luck at fishing. This gave me the opportunity to observe its curious technique. I am sure they can stab prey with their bill, just as well as any Grey Heron,  but often they will stretch their long neck downwards to the water and turn their head laterally so their bill enters the water at a sideways angle and is then held half submerged in readiness. 

The Bittern then tramps the mud underwater to create  small clouds of mud, such as occur when small prey that the fish feed on, move about on the bottom. The larger fish are attracted to these clouds and swim towards them in the hope of capturing some food item but, instead, come within range of the Bittern's bill. An alternative theory is that the tramping feet frightens the fish which then swim unwittingly within range of the Bittern's bill.

I willed the Bittern to stay in the open but I was asking too much. I was extremely fortunate to get the views I had but you always wish for more.The Bittern slowly made its way across to the opposite reed bed, wandered into the reeds and was gone. 

The BBC crew and BBOWT wardens departed for the second time. Hopefully something will come of  the publicity and the  reserve will be spared any further damage. Even better, HS2 will be scrapped.

I waited and after half an hour the Bittern re-appeared at the edge of the reed bed but this time there was to be no repeat performance as the Bittern flew across the channel of water and out of sight into the opposite reed bed. I hung on in the hope it would traverse the reed bed and come out the other side but gave up after an hour. It may well have eventually re-appeared but it was not to be while I was there. 

I had done very well and chilled to the bone I craved a warm drink and the heated seat of the Audi.


  1. A great story Ewan. I did see the BBC piece on Breakfast but didn't spot you as I walked in halfway through the story. It would be great if HS2 was stopped, but with most of the political parties wanting it I fear it will still go ahead.