“This is not a memorable wildlife experience”, the volunteer warden stressed as I arrived at the Little Bittern watchpoint at Ham Wall.
I have previous with little bitterns, so this warning didn’t deter me. Some years ago I’d gone down to Shapwick Heath, the reserve across the road to Ham Wall, on a futile bid to see otters (the result of an erroneous tip-off). One evening I noticed a stream of birders going down the tarmac path into Ham Wall. I decided I knew better than to follow the crowd, wandered down a grassy path that became marshy and impassable, and returned none the wiser.
The next day curiosity got the better of me, and I found myself with a group of birders who were saying that a Little Bittern had arrived – which I’d never heard of before, but could see it was the cause of a major twitch. Although it had showed well the previous day, it was now proving to be elusive, so I gave up after an hour or two; besides, I wasn’t about to become a twitcher, ahem.
It hung around most of the summer, calling forlornly for a mate. The next year, it turned up again. Hahaha, silly bird – you might think. Only this time it had a female in tow. This was a major surprise – it was only the second time little bitterns have been known to breed in the UK [news report]
Little Bittern at Ham Wall in 2010, nicely illustrating what you can expect to see on a feeding flight – copyright Tom Mabbett
I figured out I could look for them on the day off at New Wine. When I arrived, I was told that since the chicks had already fledged, the parents had left the site a week earlier. Since then, the little bitterns have turned up and bred every year, but it has been kept quiet to protect the birds. This year, however, the RSPB announced their arrival, and set up a 24-hour watch on the nest site to protect the birds from egg collectors.
Now that the eggs having hatched, the parents can be seen on their feeding flights, to and from the nest. I decided that on my first day off after the ordination, I would go down. I went down the evening before, which was when the gloomy volunteer warden tried to dampen enthusiasm. No chance!
What makes them so difficult to see is that, like their large brown cousins, the normal bittern, they skulk around reedbeds. But whereas the larger ones can be seen easily when they fly lazily across, little bitterns dash fast, remaining just above the reeds for as short a time as they can manage. However, they have a highly distinctive wing pattern, with a large white elliptical patch on the upper part of the wing (see image above), which means they are easy to identify. [Little Bittern intro and specialist fact sheet]
I arrived at the site again on the Friday morning, at 7am: another birder had arrived at 5:30, and had already briefly seen one of the birds. We stood and stared out. After about half an hour, the male dashed across the reed-tops before dropping into a channel between the reeds. It was brief – a couple of seconds – but long enough for me to see it clearly with binoculars and know that I’d seen a little bittern. Phew!
At the same time, we could clearly hear a male little bittern barking: sometimes faint and distant, at other times rather closer – but always distinctive, repetitive and unmistakable. Herein lay a mystery: they don’t call once eggs have been laid. So why was this one barking?
After a while, the female suddenly emerged from the reeds and flew down the clear channel to the right-hand side of the reedbed, before veering left to return to the nest. Again, enough to see it clearly – and to notice the more muted, brownish colouring.
I missed the male when it appeared an hour later, but after a few minutes it cruised along the channel between the reeds closest to us. It was a marvellous sight: very easy to see the wing pattern, and to admire the bright orangey-yellow bill that it gets when it is breeding. Although it was still only brief, for me it really was a memorable wildlife experience.
So why was there a male barking? It is now believed to be one or two unpaired males at Ham Wall, in addition to the nesting pair. The volunteer warden on the Friday afternoon, who had all the enthusiasm that the other one lacked, had heard two males barking simultaneously earlier in the week. The story of little bitterns at Ham Wall looks more likely to grow rather than diminish.
The RSPB are to be congratulated for setting up the watchpoint and co-ordinating volunteer wardens for it. Hardcore birdwatchers know what to expect, and it really was a memorable experience.
I stayed at the Bramble Hill campsite on the south-west side of Walton, which is a short distance from Ham Wall: I highly recommend this site for any birder who wants to camp near the Avalon Marshes. The facilities are excellent, and the owners very friendly and helpful.