Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Bittern Spotting for Beginners.

The beautiful Leighton Moss RSPB Reserve

We’re novice bird watchers but learning fast (does that make us fledglings?) and thoroughly enjoy a few hours pootling from hide to hide around the reserve.  At this time of year there are many migrating species moving through the region so there’s a lot to keep up with, and each time we visit we usually see something new.  This time we spotted Teal (very pretty little ducks), Pochard (very pretty slightly larger ducks), Shovellers (duck sized but huge bills) and Marsh Harriers (very large and not at all duck like).  However our mission was threefold: to see a murmuration of Starlings, to see (or even hear) a Bittern and to see the resident Otters.  It’s fair to say our success in these missions was, at best, patchy.
This is not a Bittern.

First up the Starlings.  As we arrived a couple of hours before dusk we got lucky with this one and, although comparatively small compared to what it apparently grows to later in the season, we did indeed see a minor murmuration.  However small the flock it’s still quite breath-taking to see them swoop, switch and dive in unison with no collisions; far better choreographed than the dance routines most people were watching on TV that evening.  Pretty soon they settled down to roost amongst the reed beds with their distinctive chirping. Oddly this is a sound which always reminds me of Birmingham because, as a child, when we visited Birmingham (to see Santa in Rackhams) the starlings would be roosting in the bank opposite the ramp leading into New Street station, so their sound has always held magical connections for me.  (Not often Birmingham is described as being magical).  So, mission one accomplished.

Mission two: the Bittern.  One of the rarest birds in Britain these creatures are usually heard rather than seen and have a distinctively deep, booming call.  This is good to know, but not all that helpful when you don’t know what their “deep, booming call” actually sounds like.  We got excited at several “deep, booming” calls which disappointingly turned out to be (in order) a cow, a rutting stag and a distant tractor.   We may be fledglings but we clearly have much to learn.   We read the info board which, helpfully, had a large picture of them and pointers as to when was the best time to see them.  Dusk is best apparently, around the edges of the reeds.  They’d been seen that day but sadly didn't make an appearance for us.  That said the info board also said they were “masters of disguise” so I tried to convince Steve I’d seen one disguised as a swan.  He didn't believe me.
This is also not a Bittern.

And lastly the otters.  Or rather, not the otters for they too assiduously avoided us.  They had apparently been out partying in the sunlight for the hordes of observers earlier in the day but when we arrived, sitting stock still and silently sipping tea in the Lower Hide, they stubbornly refused to reappear.  We’d been told to watch the other birds for clues as to the location of the otters, which conjured up images in my mind of a row of Warner Brothers style ducks sitting bolt upright holding “Otters this way” signs.  It seems I misunderstood.

And this most certainly isn't a Bittern.
There were many fantastic things we did see though; on our way to Lower Hide we stopped to watch a group of deer, including a stag, grazing and then lying in the warm afternoon sun.  They knew we were there but were far enough away to not be too troubled by our presence.  As I mentioned before we were lucky enough to see the Marsh Harrier again swooping around and I’m sure someone claimed that the large bird we saw chasing some of the Starlings was a Peregrine, but I could be very wrong about that.  We also saw a huge flock of Little Egrets gathered in the trees at the far side of the lake; at least 30 when we tried to count them, though they’re fidgety things and didn't hold still long enough for us to get a more accurate count. 

My very best shot of the suspected Bearded Tit.
Whaddya mean "it's a bit dark"?!
And did we see a Bearded Tit?  Well, on our way back to the car in the late dusk we spotted a small bird pecking around in the gravel ahead of us, very near to the gravel trays.  It didn’t seem too jumpy and, had it not been really rather dark by this point, we’d have probably gotten quite a nice pic, but as it was all we had to go on was its silhouette and, let’s face it, we can’t spot a Bittern in broad daylight so our chances of identifying this were non-existent.  As we reached the car it was getting quite dark and all we could hear away in the distance were owls calling to each other – another bird we could add to the “heard but not seen list”.  At least we think it was an owl, it could have been a distant train, or a car alarm, or a mobile phone, or a…