The mystique of bitterns

On Monday morning about a dozen people were crowded into the corner of the Zeiss Hide at Slimbridge, staring at a reedbed. Staring and waiting. I arrived at 9.45 but one guy had arrived at 8.00, and was still waiting and staring.

Bitterns do this to birders.

On the previous Friday morning I’d arrived, buoyantly optimistic, because two bitterns had been seen regularly for several consecutive days from the Zeiss Hide, and had been ‘showing well’. Unfortunately this was the day they’d decided to fly off down the channel ‘towards the dead tree near the Kingfisher Hide’. So I went there and started what was, on this occasion, largely a solitary vigil.

An hour later I happened to glance back down the channel as a bittern flew from one reedbed to another. So I moved down the path to a closer spot. A few minutes later I glanced around elsewhere, then looked back at the reedbed, just as the bittern had turned back into the reedbed. Doh! Never mind, I thought, it’ll re-emerge. Two hours of waiting later, it hadn’t.

Looking at the Gloster Birder website over the weekend I discovered that they’d flown back towards the Zeiss Hide, so as I had the time I went down again. There’s something re-assuring about doing a reedbed vigil with a dozen others bitten by the bittern bug [thanks for that one, Dufty!]… there’s a common bond between those of us who think this is a constructive way to spend time.

At 11:30 one of the group – the guy who’d waited since 8am – suddenly said “it’s just over there” and pointed to a small island of reeds a little further away. We crowded round the two nearest windows, as a bittern emerged, stepping purposefully, almost delicately, out from the reeds and surveyed the scene. Camera shutters clicked. A few seconds later it lifted off, flew to the nearer reeds and landed. For a short while it was just visible in its characteristic ‘bitterning’ pose – neck and beak pointing skywards to merge in with the surrounding reeds, and then it disappeared.

I was tempted to leave, satisfied, but decided to stay on, waiting, hoping for a longer sighting. Forty minutes later someone else spotted a bittern standing in a clearing in the reeds. For about twenty minutes it waited, surveying the reeds for prey – evidently without success – but there was plenty of time for many photographs to be taken – and even I got some halfway decent shots!

Bittern from the Zeiss Hide at Slimbridge – showing why its plumage is ideal for disappearing into reedbeds

I returned after this, well pleased with what I’d seen. Apparently the next day it showed even better, as this outstanding image by Mick Colquhoun shows.

The return of the bittern as a breeding species to Britain, after it had become extinct in these islands, is one of the major triumphs of bird conservation here, along with the avocet. It’s one of a number of large, heron-like birds that are making a comeback, like the egrets, the spoonbills and regular visitors like the glossy ibis. However, the others are quite showy birds, and have none of the determined elusiveness of the bittern. I was surprised to find that, despite its rarity in the UK (possibly about 200 wintering, and a small handful breeding) it is globally not endangered – there are about 200,000 adult birds. But I suspect that few, if any, outside Britain have the drawing capacity that these two at Slimbridge now have.

In between the bittern trips, I went with a group from Trinity for a hike in the Brecon Beacons. It was a most enjoyable day of tough walking and great conversation. Some of the guys had been part of the Three Peaks challenge in June (very envious of their doing this!), so there’s a desire to keep up the walking.

The hikers from Trinity doing the Brecon Beacons: Cribyn and Pen-y-fan in the background

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