Frozen pitches curtailed usual Saturday morning activities so with the clearest of winter skies I took a trip down to Great Amwell Nature Reserve. The reserve is one of the chain of lakes that follow the River Lea south towards London, extracted gravel workings now converted to a watery haven for wildlife. Otters as well as a multitude of invertebrates and birdlife populates the Great Amwell Lakes, including a rather special bird that has gone right to the brink and is now making a comeback. More on that shortly.
This was my first visit in a few years and after crossing the railway track I could immediately see the extent to which the landscape and facilities had improved over that time. A raised platform area provided a panoramic view across the water with a large stilted hide offering an alternative perspective from the other side of the lake. Hundreds of birds filled the scene and my binnoculars were quickly scanning. A flock of black-headed gulls sat on the foreshore whilst widgeon, pochard, teal, tufted duck, coot and shoveller were scattered across the water in all directions. Cormorants sat in a willow tree on the eastern bank, two heron stationery below them.
After a few minutes I walked north, eventually reaching James Hide. This was the quieter part of the reserve. Feeders in the trees close to the hide were attracting blue, great and long-tailed tits, joined infrequently by male and female reed buntings. For variety, they picked at the seed heads that stretched out below and away from me, ripples of wind licking the reed beds into gentle, flag waving movement.
Back on the path I explored further. Another quarter mile walk took me east to the other side of the lake and the spacious White hide. This hide looked back across the lake and into the lowering winter sun. This foreshore contained a different flock. Lapwings strutted and rested, occasionally lifting as one to swirl above the lake before returning to their mud bank.
|Cormorants and herons above, pochard, widgeon and black-headed gulls below|
Watching this whirling display was a tree full of cormorant and heron, perched statues on branches gaining warmth from the afternoon sun.
I wandered back to the viewing platform as the sun headed towards the tree tops in the south-western sky. I joined those looking across the lake, taking a lead from the direction of the scopes – clearly something interesting was about. Overheard conversation indicated a bittern was hiding in the reed margins but my binoculars and 500mm lens couldn’t seek it out. I begged a view through a scope and even then picking out the bird was a struggle. Eventually it’s form took shape in the lens and I saw this rarest of birds for the first time – a life tick for me of a bird that I have wanted to get a sight of for years.
|It was better through the scope!
I hunted through my images when I got home and eventually found the bittern in the reeds
The bittern is a red status heron with between 50 – 150 wintering in southern England each year. Their plumage is perfectly suited to their habitat, providing a camouflage that makes them virtually invisible when still. Their secretive nature, moving silently through large reed beds hunting for fish, contrasts with the unusual, booming call of the male.
The bittern became extinct here in the 19th Century, but recolonised, only to see its population decline again over the last 30 years. Its success and survival is entirely dependent on the availability of large reedbed wetland habitats which have reduced in the UK by as much as 45% since 1945. Biodiveristy Action Plans have been in place since 1995, reedbed sites across the country either being restored or extended to encourage greater numbers. They summer in East Anglia where this footage from RSPB Minsmere was taken that gives a far better view than I had today but for me, there’s nothing like seeing it in the feather, albeit fleetingly, on a cold, bright winters day.