WEDNESDAY 13 JUNE 2012
Northwood resident Peter Leppert found and photographed a LITTLE BITTERN on the River Colne adjacent to Stocker's Lake on Sunday 10 June. Not being a birder, he had no idea what the bird was but managed to find the HBC website after browsing the internet. Jack Fearnside intercepted his email and images and consequently placed them up on the site.
Jack attempted to make contact with Peter but failed and in the interim, Joan Thompson and I visited the River Colne on Tuesday afternoon and had a search of the area. We failed in our efforts and later in the day, I examined the images and was worried at the lack of exif data attached to the two published images (Jack very kindly explained the reason for this later). Having been on the receiving end of rare bird scammers in the past, I was somewhat apprehensive about the record.
I discussed the record with Steve Blake and he kindly agreed to give it a go in better weather conditions this morning. He was joined by Simon West and they went armed with the two photographs in hand in an attempt to match the location. Anyway, I touched base with Steve during the morning and by 1000 hours it was not looking good and I arranged with JT to go and hear the Otmoor Corncrake; Simon departed and went off to Surrey to see Glanville Fritillaries.
No sooner than I had arranged timings with Joan, Steve excitedly phoned me back. Against all odds, he had relocated the LITTLE BITTERN in an area where Joan and I had scrutinised. I was speechless but very well done Steve - full marks for persevering.
I raced down to Stocker's and joined Steve some 12 minutes later. Although he had just lost the bird and it had flown a couple of times, within minutes we had relocated it, feeding on the far bank of the Colne just south of the 100 yard stretch of thickly vegetated island. For the next 15 minutes, we observed the bird showing remarkably well on the riverbank, catching the odd Stickleback. At least 9 birders arrived during this time including Lucy Flower who fired off a number of photographs. The bird was just 20 yards away from us and affording ''crippling views''. More and more observers then arrived and the bird got more skittish and in the excitement of many arriving, the bird flew and went upstream several yards. It landed on a fallen tree and began sunbathing but as more and more photographers crept closer, it flew again and dropped to the water's edge. With birders converging from both directions, it quickly flew again, and this time flew much further. I watched it land again on the bank edge but seconds later it was flushed again and this time went purposefully upstream. By 1210, we had lost it.
I suspected it had landed in the lush crop of phragmites just north of the island and after 25 minutes, it reappeared from here and flew to the north end of the island. By now, 25 birders had enjoyed flight views, including both Paul Lewis and Steve Carter who had just arrived. I relocated it a couple of times feeding beneath the overhanging vegetation but because of the nature of its position, most people could not see it. After ten minutes or so, it flew again and this time disaster struck - and it flew out of view behind the island. Despite the best efforts of the gaggle of Canada Geese, it did not flinch and observers such as Darrel Bryant twitching in their lunchbreaks, went away empty handed.
In fact it was nearly 90 minutes before I noticed it flying back from behind the island to its favourite patch (incidentally, during the interlude, I had located the exact position from where finder Peter had photographed it). It was met with great approval though, as by now the crowd had swelled to over 40, and over the next two hours, the bird returned to affording outstanding views. Lots of photographers were present and firing off, with Lucy, Alan Reynolds, Steve Blake, Martin Parr, Dave Hutchinson and others all getting some great results (a selection of which I shall present later).
During these extended observations, the bird was seen to catch a high number of fish including a large Perch which it had real difficulty in consuming. In fact it battled with this particular fish for the best part of 40 minutes.
The overall plumage indicated a FEMALE bird, most likely a first-summer. The crown and nape were extensively black but less glossy than the adult male and with auburn-brown edges to the feathers. The hindneck was surprisingly richly coloured with the mantle and back brown and narrowly streaked pale buff all over. I did not note any grey tones to the head-sides but the neck-sides were strongly marked rufous-brown. The throat and chin were unmarked white with the foreneck and chest heavily streaked brown. The remaining underparts were basally creamish or yellowish-buff and streaked much darker brown. The tail was blackish, easily seen in flight. The prmaries and secondaries were dark brown with the upper wing-coverts strikingly paler and the marginals and patch close to the bend in the wing waem rufous.
The iris was strikingly yellow with the bill yellow and culmen entirely blackish-brown. The tip of the bill was dark too. The loral skin at the base of the bill was yellow and the legs pale green.
Joan and I departed at around 1430 hours, by which time no less than 75 observers had connected, including 85% of the local birding contingent and far-flung visitors such as Andy Hale, Chris Baines and Dave Holman.
It represents only the 5th county occurrence since 1900 with 18th Century 'shot' records at Aldenham Reservoir in 1840, Broxbourne on 13 October 1884 and at Oughtonhead Common, near Hitchin, in 1890.
In more recent times, one was seen at a pond by the River Beane at Walkern on 10 June 1965, a juvenile at Wilstone Reservoir on 17 August 1968, one briefly by the river on Oughtonhead Common on 9 June 1979 and a well-twitched male at Rye Meads Sewage Pools from 17-18 May 1997. I had seen just the latter.
In addition to the Little Bittern, this stretch of the Colne also yielded frequent sightings of a pair of COMMON KINGFISHERS, a male COMMON CUCKOO and up to 3 singing male GARDEN WARBLERS.
Park near to Rickmansworth Aquadrome and walk around the north side of the boating lake (Bury Lake) to the bridge over the River Colne. From here, follow the footpath bordering the south side of the river for 250 yards to just west of the well-vegetated island at TQ 046 936.
OTMOOR RSPB RESERVE (OXFORDSHIRE)
After all of the excitement at Stocker's, we arrived in the relative tranquility of Otmoor in the midst of deepest rural Oxfordshire late afternoon. Walking immediately west, then north and then west for 400 yards along the south side of GREENAWAYS FIELD, the calling male CORNCRAKE was still present - and calling at regular intervals whilst we were present. It was around 100-150 yards north of the footpath and with very long grass to call from, impossible to see.
This same field also held up to 5 HOBBIES, one of which (an adult) I was surprised to see kill and take away a juvenile Skylark. The border hedgerow held EUROPEAN TURTLE DOVE and the NW corner of Moorleys Field, a reeling male GRASSHOPPER WARBLER.
The vastness of The Closes held a calling COMMON QUAIL whilst other species encountered included COMMON CUCKOO, Common Redshank, Lapwing, Yellowhammer, Common Whitethroat, Willow Warbler, Bullfinch (pair), Goldfinch and juvenile Greenfinch
LOOSELY ROW (BUCKS)
On the way back, we stopped off at Loosely Row village, but there was no sight nor sound of yesterday evening's Common Quail