Birding at Heron H.Q.

Glastonbury Tor from Ham Wall at sunrise.

Only twenty years ago one could reasonably expect to see a grey heron or two at a wetland in southern England and possibly the one of the first little egrets to arrive on these shores. How things have changed! Little egrets can now be seen all over the south, and several other heron species have arrived in Britain since then. Spoonbills nest in Norfolk and probably elsewhere, and it cannot be long before glossy ibis nests in the UK. The great white egret, previously a rare vagrant, has been breeding on the Somerset Levels (a.k.a. the Avalon Marshes) for several years, and may well do so elsewhere. Cattle egrets have nested there and even little bitterns. To avoid confusion it is now necessary to refer to its larger relative as the “greater bittern” instead of plain “bittern”; and  there are now more of them in the Avalon Marshes than there were in the whole of Britain at the end of the last century.  The conversion of large areas of redundant peat cuttings into reedbeds has created what could accurately be described as U.K. Heron H.Q. The RSPB has a fabulous reserve (Ham Wall) there and is constantly adding new areas of land to its holding. It might be a massive corporate behemoth beset by unpleasant internal practices but, boy, does the RSPB do a good job when it comes to habitat creation!

Great white egret over the Avalon marshes.

In a previous post I wrote about a trip to the Somerset Levels in winter, where I photographed starlings and great white egrets. Earlier this week I spent a couple of days around Ham Wall and what a great place it is!  My internal clock woke me about 4 a.m on the first morning and from the van I could see wisps of low fog in the air.  I wasted no time (well, maybe a little….) in getting myself up and on to the reserve. It was a gorgeous, atmospheric morning, with misty conditions throughout;  the iconic shape of Glastonbury Tor, with its tower, was often visible, and this was my first photographic objective (see above). It was soon sunrise and birds were leaving roost sites and moving to feeding areas in the marshes.  I tried to include over-flying birds in these early morning landscapes even if they were quite small in the viewfinder. It was particularly noticeable how many great white egrets there were, and I saw several greater bitterns in flight. Despite being extraordinary birds in themselves I can’t get too excited about the appearance of the latter in flight, while the former are delightful.

Barn owl.

As the morning sun rose and burned away the mist the landscape began to look a little more ordinary. Mid-June is not the greatest time of year for landscape photography but there was still plenty of interest bird-wise. A barn owl was hunting in broad daylight near one of the hides and flying past with prey – a nest nearby, no doubt. I’ve never been that good at birds-in-flight so it was a bonus to find that a few images I took of it are reasonably sharp!

It is usually possible to have an exchange of information with other birders and I think most enjoy it.  But with rare species, especially if they are nesting, there’s so much misinformation around. You just don’t know who or what to believe. Was the guy in the welcome hut – no doubt anxious to keep visitor numbers up – being honest about the red-footed falcon that had apparently been seen earlier?   The Ham Wall recent sightings blog made no mention of little bitterns, but despite that were they back again this year? So after a well-deserved (I thought) and rather lengthy siesta I headed back on to the reserve in the late afternoon from the Glastonbury end. It wasn’t long before I came across a gaggle of birders standing by the main track looking into the reeds. This looked like a gathering. Had I stumbled onto the location of the legendary little bittern? At first my attempts to ascertain this were met with a rather frosty silence. But soon it emerged that yes, I had. It had been heard there earlier in the day and seen briefly. I waited around for an hour or more but all was quiet; it was time to move on.

Greater bitterns had been booming on and off all day and it was the first time I had heard the “in-breath” and really got to grips with the sound.  If all else failed I was also hoping to hear the “bark” of the little bittern; sometimes the sound of an elusive bird’s song can be enough; you know it is there somewhere and it all adds to the sum of one’s knowledge of wildlife. So I stopped at the same section of reedbed on the way back to the van and listened. And there it was – a regular, nay, monotonous single note repeated every two seconds exactly. After half an hour of listening I saw a movement low over the reeds – a stunning male little bittern. The sighting lasted just about second, but I was elated. The barking resumed from the reeds in the direction the bird had disappeared in.

Marsh harrier at dawn, Ham Wall

My second morning at Ham Wall was similar. Misty, still, and full of birds.  Below the Avalon Hide marsh harriers were just arising and stretching their  wings. (In fact, I later discovered that the three birds I saw together were probably one male and his two females…..) The barn owl was still hunting the same area. A cuckoo was very active. The little bittern was still calling, and there seemed to be assorted other heron species everywhere. What a sight and sound!

 

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Twice bittern.

Kingfisher in the rain, Teifi Marshes
Kingfisher in the rain, Teifi Marshes

A few days before Christmas I headed down to the Teifi Marshes near Cardigan with high hopes of seeing a bittern. It is a regular winter haunt for this extraordinary but elusive species and I had photographed one there in January 2015 (see this post). Furthermore there had recently been reports in the local bird blog of one by the Kingfisher Pool. It all seemed very promising. But after six hours in a very cold hide without a single sighting I felt somewhat deflated……and I’m sure the bad cold I suffered over Christmas was not a coincidence.

But they do say that every cloud has a silver lining, though, and in this case it was the kingfisher which made a circular tour of its perches around the pool at lunch time. Various sticks and branches have been provided here for kingfishers by the Wildlife Trust, but they result in rather conventional “bird on a stick” type images. I think the perch shown above shows the bird in a more natural setting and the falling rain gives the photograph a rather painterly feel.

Bittern at Teifi Marshees, Cardigan
Bittern at Teifi Marshes, Cardigan

The bittern was reported (and photographed) again on Tuesday so it seemed like another attempt might produce results. Another photographer was already in the hide when I arrived about 9.30 a.m. yesterday and we were soon joined by several others. One told us that the bird had spent two full days wedged between branches in a nearby willow. Local birders and conservationists became concerned for its welfare so reserve staff had climbed up towards it and poked it with a stick, whereupon it flew back down to the reeds!

The bittern was first seen not long afterwards. It was crouched low to the ground, fluffed up like a big round feather duster, and appeared quite immobile. It did not look like a healthy or a happy creature. But after a while it began to walk slowly towards the hide, its weight breaking the ice at one point. It came closer and closer and motor drives began to rattle away in earnest. Over the next hour it was hardly hidden at all. It walked slowly, and then more quickly, around, pausing to take the sun from time to time. The light was lovely, either bright sunshine or light cloud. Either was excellent for this large, cryptically patterned bird. It can’t eventually have been further than 20 yards from the hide. Then there was a crouch, a pause, another crouch, and it launched itself into the air, flying away quite powerfully low above the reeds and blackthorn crub.

Bittern in flight
Bittern in flight

It had been a truly exhilarating hour for everyone in the hide. One always opens oneself to disappointment by a making a tightly focussed photography expedition like this. Without the bittern it would have been a rather dismal morning – dismal and cold. So we were all happy, although we all knew we would have many hours of file processing to look forward to. Let’s just hope that the bird itself stays well and finds enough food to get through the winter.

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The patient birdwatcher.

Bittern, Teifi Marshes
Bittern, Teifi Marshes

 

Last Thursday saw me heading south to the Teifi Marshes, a Wildlife Trust reserve near Cardigan. After days on end cooped up in my  home-office cum prison cell thanks to rain and/or wind and/or cloud, the forecast for Thursday was promising. I decided to make an early start. So on a lovely morning I arrived on the banks of the Teifi just a few minutes after sunrise. The tide was high and it was flat calm. What a picture!

I spent a minute or two in each of the hides as I walked down the old railway track into the reserve. At the top of my day’s wish-list, I told another photographer, was a bittern. It may not have been very realistic objective but what the hell………aim high! I quickly moved on until I reached the Kingfisher hide, because a bittern is occasionally seen from there in winter. I’ve always liked this hide because it overlooks a small pool, more or less surrounded by reeds;  it is quite an intimate space. I opened a wooden flap and looked out.

At first I didn’t believe it was even actually a bird. It was too still – a fence-post perhaps? Too tall, too thin and too dark to be a bittern, anyway. I dropped my camera bag on to the wooden floor, the sound – I’m sure – carrying far on such a still morning. Trying to keep calm, I retrieved my Canon 5d3 / Tamron 150-600 zoom combo and took another look. It was a bittern, sunning itself! The sound of the shutter would travel equally clearly in these conditions; by the time I had taken the first few shots, there was no doubt that it was aware of my presence. It turned around, then began to walk along the edge of the reeds. Within three minutes of my arrival it had disappeared. I silently cursed my clumsiness.

The other photographer arrived. We waited another ten minutes or so. Then there was movement in the reeds and I located the bird half way up some reed stems. From this launch pad it flew across the pool and disappeared. Would it ever be seen again? In fact, it flew again quite soon and landed opposite the hide. This small reed-bed is somewhat degraded at the moment, the result, apparently, of being used as a starling roost.  Over most of the area the reeds are bent over (or broken) to barely half their normal height. (I believe the technical term is “trashed”…..) A crouching bittern was still completely hidden but at full height it was easily visible. Over the course of the day the bittern could be seen with varying degrees of success as it visited various parts of the reedbed. Having said that, though, its position was most often given away by the black cap to its head. It is a wonderfully camouflaged creature. The starling hypothesis gained credence after a couple of crows brought a small dark bird corpse out of the reeds and ate it. There would be plenty of food there for a bittern, too, as they are not that choosy about their diet.

Discussing the finer points of eating a dead starling......
Discussing the finer points of eating a dead starling……

I was still hoping for the ultimate bittern picture so I stayed put, despite the temperature, which must have been pretty close to freezing in the shade. The six layers of clothing I had donned early that morning weren’t really enough.  A succession of other visitors joined me in the hide, and I helped them locate the bird. They donated sandwiches, biscuits and chocolate in return. I hadn’t expected to be there so long! One christened me “the patient birdwatcher”. Towards mid-afternoon the bittern moved quite close to the railway track and I was able to photograph it reasonably successfully through the overgrown hedge (see above). Eventually a combination of thorough cold and fatigue meant it was time to call it a day. But what a day!

I’m still not sure I have the perfect bittern picture. In one otherwise excellent series of images, the bird’s surroundings are untidy. In the picture above the inverted v-shape, out-of-focus reed stem is irritating. I wonder if the content-aware cloning abilities of Photoshop would remove it successfully. Does anyone know?

 

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The robin says……

Christmas greetings to all my readers!

A couple of weeks ago I spent a few days in the Morecambe Bay / Leighton Moss area of Lancashire. Waking early on the first morning I had arrived at Leighton Moss’s Lower Hide by daybreak – well, it’s not that early this time of year! The windows were smothered in frost so I opened one and peered out. Little egrets were leaving their roost in some scrubby woodland opposite and I counted fifty-seven altogether. How quickly times change in nature…….. Then, all of a sudden, a robin appeared on the window frame about nine inches from my face! It turned out to be the tamest robin I have ever come across. It was obviously a regular visitor because there was a scattering of bird seed on the window  ledge, but I got the impression that it genuinely wanted some human company. Apart from the couple of hours when I went for brunch I was in the hide all day. The robin was never more than a few yards away and usually actually inside it, despite an often full compliment of human visitors being present as well.

Sunbathing water rail
Sunbathing water rail

The robin seemed to be paying particular attention to something lying on an empty bench at the back of the hide, so I went over to investigate. It was a laminated photograph of a robin, which had originally been attached to the hide wall.   Every time I held it up the real robin pecked the eye of the robin in the photograph.  Over and over again, absolutely consistently. I held the photograph up and slowly turned it round. The real robin would go round the back to investigate. It was absolutely fascinating. And yet I didn’t feel that the real robin was genuinely angry. It seemed to be playing a game in the same way that a dog will repeatedly bring back a thrown stick.

Well, small things please small minds, you might be thinking. What else took my attention? Leighton Moss seemed to be bursting with two elusive reedbed species, water rails and bitterns, and I had excellent views of both. The former were pecking around the edges of the reeds in several places, but they are extremely nimble and you need lightning fast reflexes to be able to photograph one. One spent quite some time sun-bathing not far from the hide. It must have been asleep because the white nictating membrane in the eye was visible. Another spent a long while in and out of vegetation directly below the hide window, but by that time it was almost dark; I’m still searching for the perfect water rail image, or even something useable. I do get the impression that water rails are common than they were ten or twenty years ago, though.

Bittern at Leighton Moss
Bittern at Leighton Moss

It is nearly always exciting to see a bittern although at a big reedbed like Leighton Moss one does get a little blasé about distant half-views of them creeping in and out of the reeds. Reserve staff reckoned there were between nine and eleven birds present last winter, and on my visit several flew towards a particular area of the reedbed from late afternoon onwards. I guessed they were roosting communally.The above was captured on one of these late afternoon flights, but I’m still searching for the classic bittern shot too!

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