Sunday, January 23, 2011

Patchwork 2010 - Bittern on six fingers

Bittern, SNR, 21st December 2010

Number one in a series of boredom-relieving, reasons-to-believe-in local patch highlights from last year. Of course, all these and many more occur 'live' over at the Hackney Wildlife latest sightings page, but while pickings are slim there's no harm in isolating a few special occasions to remind myself why masochism is nothing to be ashamed of.

For those unfamiliar with the patch (and my endless ramblings about it online and elsewhere), Stoke Newington Reservoirs comprises two very small waterbodies deep within the dark heart of urban London, in the Borough of Hackney. A full overview can be found here.

Last year was particularly memorable, not least because I was able to cover the patch on something approaching 300 days, and with greater scrutiny than ever. Hence, a golden opportunity to nail often-dreamed of and unexpected species that would otherwise drift through unnoticed.

Bittern, SNR, 7th January 2010

Bitterns have become something of a star bird here in the last two winters; unthinkable previously, especially considering the miniscule amount of suitable habitat and unappealing location. Unrecorded in the area since the first record of a bird found in a Stoke Newington bus shelter in the infamous '62/'63 winter (admirable local knowledge perhaps, what with no tube station locally), 2009 provided the first modern record, watched from the Obs platform lolloping west at dusk on 28th October. At the time, exceptional, and a welcome addition to the personal list.

Until sustained coverage during the extended cold snap in January 2010 brought an amazing spectacle on the 7th: Coming in low from the east at around 1340 and maniacally harassed by a group of Carrion Crows, the bird looked to put down in the reedbed, but was recieving too much hassle; instead of continuing west (like the first site record above), the Bittern opted to swing around and land in the crown of a tree on the Woodberry Down housing estate.

Visible from my office window and garden, it remained in the treetop for at least ten minutes, defending itself admirably against a group of about 15 Carrion Crows and three Magpies. Despite constant attack, it managed to aim a potentially mortal blow at one of the crows, which tumbled out of sight....

Bittern, SNR, 7th January 2010

Fast-forward to March, and the first morning scan of the East Res revealed a suspicious movement in the reedbed on the far side; soon enough revealed to be another Bittern, the first actually seen utilising our Phragmites, and the first to be twitchable by other local birders (including the Birdwatch office - see Dominic's blog entry here).

Less than two weeks later, and a wander round the East Res perimeter produced yet another - a new bird (on flight feathers) flushed from close range on March 13th. Number four for the site, all in the same winter.

And so to this winter, and the idea of an extended period of freezing conditions bringing in a stellaris suddenly not sounding so foolish. After a fantastic week of weather-related scarcities and movements (Greenshank, Curlew, Jack Snipe, two Goldeneyes etc - all gold dust locally), December 6th brought Bittern number five - flushed by a fox, at close range, in the south-east corner of the reedbed.

A period of milder weather returned conditions, and sightings, to regulation mid-winter fare in the meantime; until a second period of severe, extended arctic conditions set in from the 17th - and bingo, another Bittern. Number six was watched drifting in from the south at low level, croaking noisily (not unlike a Brent Goose), and sensibly putting down into the reedbed before risking being taken out by the local Corvus / Larus hit-squads.

Bittern, SNR, 17th December 2010

Two days later and with the big freeze becoming even more extreme, presumably the same bird was initially flushed from the East Res perimeter on the morning of the 19th, and was later watched playing cat and mouse with the local foxes during the middle of the day from the epic panorama of the Lincoln Court rooftop.

Bittern, SNR, 19th December 2010 (from the roof of a neighbouring tower block)

The following day, and after watching the bird's behavioural patterns (commuting between the inflow and outflow much of the time), I relocated it by the outflow. With the light good, snow and ice coating everything in sight and camera at hand, I crept up on the Bittern - and instead of flushing as expected, it adopted the snake-necked camouflage mode, and both of us froze.

Bittern, SNR, 20th December 2010

Allowing approach down to about four metres (any closer and the camera lens impotent), the bird performed beautifully, under the impression it remained cleverly undetected... I left it in the same spot after five minutes or so, still neck-craning and immobile. Staying untill 22nd at least, it represents a wonderful part of local birding - from fantasy pipe-dream to eagerly expected in little more than a year.

Bittern, SNR, 21st December 2010