One of the side-effects of the hard winter is that certain birds usually known for their secretive and skulking behaviour can be seen a lot more easily. Woodcocks, for instance, of which I’ve seen more locally this winter than in the last 10 put together, and Bitterns.
There have been several around Soar Valley sites since around Christmas, but I’d managed to miss them every time, even the one at Swithland Reservoir that seemed impossible not to see, so small was the area it was frequenting. So, for a change, I went to the far side of my local patch yesterday, to Willington Gravel Pits in Derbyshire, where a Bittern has been seen on and off since early autumn.
Thing is, once I got there, I rather forgot about it. It’s a big site, and there was plenty else to divert my attention, and anyway the reedbed’s big enough that any Bittern can stay hidden for days at a time. I walked down to the first viewing platform, which overlooks an almost enclosed bay of the main lake, and after a scan of the water and the reedy fringes, started watching the nearby bird table. There were plenty of Reed Buntings, two Willow Tits (easier to find than March Tits in my part of the world), and several Robins and Dunnocks.
At one point, there was the sound of movement in the reeds behind me, but careful scanning revealed nothing, and when a Water Rail started squealing from the same area, I assumed it had been responsible for the whole commotion. I returned to watching the table, which now had a couple of Bullfinches in attendance.
Then there was the sound from the reeds again, and I looked round to see a Bittern flying almost straight towards me. Bizarrely, it seemed not to have even noticed I was there, even though the viewing platform is really rather prominent, and it got to within 15 yards before suddenly veering right then sweeping round in a wide curve, and finally dropping out of sight into a ditch. They’re really glorious birds, and always look more golden than you expect.
After that excitement, anything else was always going to be an anti-climax, so a single Stonechat, four Oystercatchers and a couple of Shelducks were no more than pleasant diversions. But out on the far side of the water, patient grilling of a flock of dozing Pochards produced a pair of Pintail, also asleep with their heads tucked out of sight. They’re not a duck we get very often in the East Midlands, so it was a nice tick.
As it turned out, my regular Soar Valley site, Cossington Meadows, had a Bittern, two Pintail, two Little Egrets and the three Short-eared Owls yesterday, but I’d bet my house that the Bittern wouldn’t have shown if I’d gone there instead!