18 January 2009

Abberton's unexpected Bittern

A trip to my mother-in-law's in Essex meant a free Saturday morning to enjoy the best that Essex birding could offer. And in her neck of the woods, that really comes down to a choice of three - Fingringhoe, Blackwater Estuary or Abberton.

I had no plans to leave early, but when I finally did get up just before 8am, the weather made up my mind for me - it was wet and it was windy, and the two coastal destinations were just to exposed to appeal. So Abberton Reservoir it was - a bit of shelter, a few hides, and plenty of wintering birds. In the event, I needn't have worried about the weather - it brightened up beautifully. But I'm still glad I chose Abberton.

From the first causeway across this mighty reservoir I spied plenty of Goldeneye, Pochard, Tufties, a huge 'raft' of Coots and plenty more... including a cluster of birders standing together on the second causeway, a half mile or so away. This could only mean one thing - something was afoot.

So I drove round, hopped out, and heard one of the birders telling someone: "and just track along the line of reeds to the left of the weir." So, still not knowing what I was looking for, I dutifully obliged and locked straight on to a Bittern! Magic, one of Britain's rarest birds, a real favourite with most birders - and unlike most of the elusive little so-and-so's, this one was right on the edge of the small reedbed. I just about managed a record snap through the scope, and headed off a happy man.

The day was off to a flier, and it continued to be a belter. OK, so I couldn't find any of the reported 6 Smews (it's a big water, so it's not as easy as it sounds), but I did find Siskin at the visitor centre, more than 120 Curlew in fields nearby, a fabulous glittering flock of Lapwing, a close-to Redshank, scores of Wigeon, Teal, Goldeneye etc, Bullfinches, Goldcrest, Green Woodpecker, winter thrushes, 20 or so Sky Larks tumbling low over a ploughed field, and, my personal favourite after the Bittern, a pair of Stonechats on a reservoir-side fence. Brilliant birding.

Bird of the day: Bittern (Botaurus stellaris), with a special mention to the Stonechat. The Bittern is a smallish brown heron which was nearly hunted into extinction in Britain, but hangs on as a breeding bird in a small number of (mainly East coast) reed beds. These are supplemented in winter by incoming continental birds escaping the worst of the mainland freeze. They are rare, incredibly hard to see in the reeds (just check out the camouflage some time, and a favourite for most birders.

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