Rural Reading: Searching for a bitternBy Adrian Lawson
February 22, 2013
The other day, I heard that a bittern had been seen on one of the gravel pits on the outskirts of Reading.
Shortly after, I heard that there were actually two. Not that long ago, bitterns were just about extinct in England.
Even when they began to recover, they were restricted to the vast reed beds of Norfolk and Suffolk.
Happily, there are many more about now, but there are still only two or three in Berkshire most winters, and they haven’t bred here since their numbers have begun to recover.
I last saw one around here in bitterly cold weather two years ago, when all the lakes were iced over.
One had to resort to hiding in a tiny patch of reeds along the canal, and as I walked past it flew away. They are so well camouflaged that, had it not flown, I would probably not have seen it.
On hearing the news of the two new bitterns, I set off to see if I could find them for myself.
I have a good telescope and a pair of binoculars, so I found a comfortable spot and sat down, staring at the reed bed where they had been seen.
Suddenly, as the light faded, I spotted movement, and there it was, clambering up the reeds in a most ungainly fashion, getting ready to settle for the night.
As I peered through the gloom I spotted the second one and, once it was properly dark, I walked round to where they were and was able to see one, silhouetted against the night sky, as it huddled against the cold.
The next chance I had wasn’t so successful. Snow was falling as I got there, and it turned to sleet, then rain, and back to snow.
It was difficult enough to see the reed bed, let alone a bittern and, once I had frozen right through, I went home without any sign that a bittern was there.
The following day was a complete contrast, warm, still and sunny. I walked very slowly behind the reed bed, peering into it with my binoculars, when suddenly I noticed an eye peering back at me.
There, hidden so completely by its camouflage, was a bittern, 30 feet away.
By moving very slightly, I was able to see almost the whole bird, with its beady eyes peering back at me through the reeds, the best view I have ever had of such a rare bird.