Help! Am a turning into a twitcher?

Green heron, near Narberth

Earlier this week I headed down to Kidwelly near Carmarthen. Having arrived there I checked the Pembs Bird Blog – as I regularly do – to find that a green heron had been found near Narberth, only about 25 miles away. This is an exceptionally rare vagrant from north and central America to the British Isles, and a visit was a no-brainer, really. I restrained myself for several hours the following morning, photographing migrating whimbrel which had been pushed high on to the saltmarsh by a spring tide. But after a second breakfast I headed over to Pembrokeshire. Full directions to the site were given on the Bird Blog; it was in the grounds of the local M.P.’s house who very generously, really, had opened up his garden to the possibly hundreds of complete strangers who might want to see the bird.

I arrived mid-morning to find maybe twenty birders already there, with many thousands of pounds worth of optical and photographic gear on display, camped out just outside the back door of the house. The heron was in a wildlife pond, created by the owner, nearby, but unfortunately not showing very well. The words “creep”, “lurk” and “virtually invisible” come to mind. At mid-day it came to the edge of a bullrush bed and preened for a while, and a motor-drive hammered away over my right shoulder. That guy would have hundreds of virtually identical and more-or-less unusable files to sort through and delete! The heron retreated again, and I decided to cut my losses and return the next morning, when I guessed it might be more active.

I arrived about 7 a.m. to find the bird roosting close to the garden, but low down in deep shade. It immediately flew a little further away onto a low, horizontal branch where it remained  for some time, facing away and partially shielded by branches and twigs. It eventually came closer and sidled up a branch in full view, where I was able to photograph it successfully. The above image is a big crop, from near the edge of the frame, and I continue to be amazed at the quality of results possible from the rather modest Tamron 150-600 Mk 1 lens that I have had for more than four years now. It helps to have a Canon 5d on the end of it, of course, but even that is only a mk3. I have cleaned up a couple twigs  from behind and around the bird.

From the branch the heron extended its very long neck and stretched down to pick up some prey from the water beneath. As it did so it nearly slipped off the branch, exposing it’s stunning plumage, which shimmered with irridescent colours in the sunlight. You can see this quite well in the smaller image. The name green heron really doesn’t do it justice. One has to wonder how it managed to cross the Atlantic and arrive in such an obscure part of south Wales, some five miles from the coast. Some say it may have been “ship-assisted”, and it may have been lurking unseen around the area for months. We will probably never know, but it certainly seems to have found some ideal habitat with plenty of food to keep it going for some time.

Everyone who has seen the green heron will be very grateful  for the opportunity. Birders from all over the UK were arriving at all hours of the day (and probably night). One car-load had set off from Tees-side at 11 pm and arrived at 5 am, others had come from Woking and Nottingham to name but two. One can only applaud the hospitality of Simon Hart and his wife, who at least once a day brought out a tray of mugs complete with a pot of delicious freshly brewed coffee.

I couldn’t help noticing the “Countryside Alliance” sticker on the kitchen window. However these are no ordinary members; Mr Hart was its Chief Executive from 2003 until 2010, and is currently its Chairman. The Countryside Alliance is a major part of the pro-hunting lobby and gets a pretty bad press amongst conservationists. As is common at twitches (apparently) a donations bucket was left outside – with donations in this case going to the charity “Songbird Survival”. This latter organisation also has a bad reputation amonst many wildlife lovers, being seen as a front for predator control (although there is nothing controversial on their website). One could not help but notice, though, that its staff and trustees are gathered largely from the land-owning fraternity, with no representatives at all from any of the main (or even minor) conservation organisations, which seems rather curious. But having seen the amount of fabulous wildlife habitat Mr Hart has created around his home one should perhaps take a more open-minded view of the way the landed types go about things.

So am I turning into a twitcher? On this particular trip I managed to get decent images from the Kidwelly area which may see the light of day some time next year. Seeing the green heron was a bonus at the cost of modest additional mileage. Like most birders I’m sometimes tempted to add a new species to my list – (not that I have a list, he added hastily) –  by travelling to see a rarity. I’ve sometimes described myself as “the world’s worst twitcher”  due to past failures so two successes in recent weeks makes a nice change! But there’s no way I’m going to subscribe to one of the bird news services with the consequent anxiety and carbon emissions this would entail.  That way madness lies.

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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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