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  • Writer's picturePeter Howarth

Close Encounters of the Bittern Kind

Updated: Feb 9, 2020

I was recently asked if I had seen every bird that resides in Leighton Moss, while the answer is of course no. This is due to all the migratory birds that come and go through the year, I have however seen most of the year long residents. There is one bird that continues to evade my telephoto lens; the Bittern (Botaurus stellaris).

The Bittern is one of the rarest birds in the UK. It was considered extinct as a breeding species in the UK by the 1870s but eventually recolonised in the early 20th century. As time has gone on Bittern numbers have improved and there were around 160 birds counted in the UK in 2017. Leighton Moss is one of the few places that these remarkable birds call home.

I have wanted to have a close encounter with a Bittern for a very long time. I have seen one flying off the reserve and if I can find the truly awful picture I will add it to this blog as a reference.

D7500 Sigma 150-600c 1/500 sec at f/6.3 ISO 450

It is only recently that I have started actively seeking out Bitterns. On previous visits to Leighton Moss I was content to photograph anything and everything that would sit for me. As my photographic skills have improved so has my desire to seek out those extra special subjects. This started with Bearded Tits (which I will write about another time), but is now squarely focused on Bitterns.

Jump forward 8 months from my initial sighting of a Bittern, I am sat in the lower hide for the third consecutive morning. Unlike previous mornings I am not alone in the hide. To my dismay my much favoured corner is taken, so I plonk myself down and wait. The view out from the hide is bleak, whatever water fowl there is; is located on the far bank well out of the range of my 600mm. This I quickly noticed was a blessing in disguise as the other people in the hide became bored and one by one they left. I seized my chance and manoeuvred myself into the corner, where I would remain for the next 3 hours.

As time ticks by I see a lot of the regular faces including Teals, Mallards, Tuffed Ducks and Shovelers, I was pleased to see a pair of male Golden Eyes (a new sighting for me) among them.

Hour two is where things got really exciting. As I scanned the reeds, a commotion to the left grabbed my attention. I looked across and couldn't believe my eyes, out of nowhere a Bittern had come in to land on the corner of the reed bed. My heart was in my throat as I reached for my camera, I looked down the viewfinder and saw nothing but reeds. "Not to worry" I told myself "it might come out, I'll compose my image and wait". So that is what I did. (Below is the photo that never was).

D7500 Sigma 150-600c 1/500 sec at f./8.0, ISO 1600

One hour later as the hide filled up I decided to call it. I find the decision to leave, one of the hardest to make. On the one hand, as I leave the Bittern could finally show itself and on the other, I could have sat there all day and never seen it again.

Once I left the hide, I ventured back to visitors centre for lunch. I then pottered around the reserve for a while longer, taking a few photos of a very patient crow before eventually going home.

D7500 SIGMA 150-600C 2/500 sec at f/6.3 ISO 3600


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