On The Wing by Gary Atkins

on the wing
on the wing

There can be few more beautiful and dramatic counties that Derbyshire, and there are endless walks by which to enjoy both the dramatic scenery and the varied birdlife found within it. But even I sometimes get tempted out of my home county by the promise of a rare bird.

Last weekend was just such an occasion as I joined a car-full of fellow enthusiasts as we headed north from Chesterfield for Potteric Carr – a Yorkshire Wildlife Trust wetland site just south of Doncaster. This time of year holds the promise of seeing that iconic bird, the Bittern. It regularly crops up at this reserve, which generally hosts several individuals in winter.

We set off in optimistic mood, but on arrival noticed ‘Bittern’ had not appeared on the sightings board for a couple of days. Nevertheless we asked the helpful ranger on reception about the likeliest whereabouts of this heron-like bird based on recent sightings.

We then carefully plotted a route that gave us a chance to catch a glimpse of a bird that’s difficult to spot at the best of times. It inhabits dense reed beds, you see, and its streaky plumage of brown and buff chevrons and stripes is designed to make it virtually invisible, particularly when pointing its slender bill vertically.

It can seemingly morph into a patch of reed stems, and even an intensive scan with binoculars or telescope will often fail to lift this highly-effective camouflage. Patience can sometimes be rewarded as it launches itself in a low, slow flight from one reed bed to another.

The good news is that the once painfully scarce Bittern is making a comeback, showing up at ever more UK wetland sites. But as my friends and I moved from hide to hide, it became increasingly clear that today was not going to be our day, despite the compensation of good views of several duck species on the water and smaller birds busy at a feeding station – oh, and a very nice shepherd’s pie and Yorkshire pudding dinner in the cafe!

If the word ‘twitcher’ has crept into your mind as you read this, please don’t believe it! South Yorkshire’s only a half-hour’s drive from Derbyshire, and the price of diesel is enough to put me off jumping into a car and travelling hundreds of miles for one species ‘tick’.

As it was, the avian and human company had, as ever, been very enjoyable on the day.

And as for our main quarry, to paraphrase an old adage – One Bittern, very shy!