Ever the optimist

The font of all wisdom in my area for what birdlife is around is the Cambridge Bird Club ‘What’s About‘ blog. A short while ago there was a report of a sighting of a bittern at one of my regular nature walks, Milton Country Park. This was an exciting development because I’ve never seen a bittern before, so on the following Saturday morning I set off before dawn to be in situ at sun up to try and see it. The bittern (Botaurus stellaris, Dansk: Rørdrum) is a small brown heron which lives in reedbeds and is so perfectly camouflaged it is almost impossible to find until it breaks cover. It’s famous for the ‘booming‘ call of the male which can be heard up to 1km away, so I set off hopeful of not only seeing one but maybe hearing it boom too. Ever the optimist!

The conservation status of the bittern in the UK is red, meaning it is scarce and under threat. Alas, the chap I was hoping to catch a glimpse of was very scarce indeed, to the point of being completely absent. Oh well, next time maybe. But every cloud and all that, even though the bittern had absconded there was other birdlife in abundance.

And not only birds, snowdrops were blossoming on the forest floor

The Country Park is made up of old gravel or quarry pits surrounded by a mixture of grassy scrub and mature woodland. Up in the treetops great spottted woodpeckers were hammering holes…

Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocops major, Dansk: stor flagspætte)

I think this one is a female – the male has a red patch on the back of his neck which I think was absent on this one. The woodpeckers drumming sound results from the frequency of drilling rather than the power. They have energy absorbing tissues in the head to prevent brain damage and they strike at a frequency of 10-40 times a second which makes the tree trunk resonate, and that’s how they create their unique sound. Treecreepers were spiralling up these trees too, but they were just too quick to get a photograph.

But on the lakes there were hundreds and hundreds of water birds of all types:

Courting great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker)

The full mating ritual of the great crested grebe is a wonderful sight. I’ve only ever seen it a couple of times and it involves swimming away from each other to a distance of 20-30m or so, then turning and swimming rapidly towards each other and when they meet they rise up in a vigorous display of necking before settling back into the water facing each other and creating a heart shape with their heads and necks. This is repeated mofre tha once and is utterly absorbing and delightful to watch. I was fervently hoping that my pair here were going to perform but they were content to simply preen, commune and doze. Still lovely though.

Another male great crested grebe with a pair of male pochard in hot pursuit (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland)

Two male tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand) eyeing a lady with bad intent. Love, or something, was in the air!

Both pochard and tufted duck are divers and the rapid spread of the tufted duck in the UK in the 19th century is though to be the result of colonisation of UK waterways by the zebra mussel which originates in southern Russia.

A male gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand)

On a grey murky day the gadwall looks like a dull grey/brown duck but when the sun shines on them they are quite handsome birds, easily recognised on the water by the black rump, general brown plumage and the grey/black beak.

Coot and moorhen (Fulica atra, Dansk: blishøne and Gallinula chloropus, Dansk: grønbenet rørhøne, respectively) are both members of the family Rallidae along with water rail (which I saw on a previous recent visit to the Country Park, but not this one, even though I spent 10-15 minutes quietly looking where I saw one before) and crakes, which aren’t to be found in these parts.

The coot…

…and the moorhen

The male coots were in the mood for love and fighting out on the water on all the lakes, and were too numerous to count, and the occasional, more secretive and less aggressive, moorhen ventured into view from the reeds at the lake edges.


The brown heads are male wigeon, the black and white ones are male tufted duck, the two brown ones in the foreground are a pair of gadwall and out of focus at the back is another gadwall and a coot

As the sun came up the birds on the water semed to spring into life and large groups of various species busy feeding. All the pictures in this post were taken in a couple of hours or so from dawn until 10-11am and within a 300m radius. But as the sun arose and the light changed the colour of the water changed dramatically and gave some wonderfully varied backgrounds.

I stopped at a gap in the undergrowth to photograph the various species above and as I stood snapping the robin hopped into view between me and the water pecking at the seeds on the ground left by a benevolent walker for the ducks:

I think the most colourful, and therefore my favourite duck of that morning was the wigeon:

A pair of wigeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand), the male behind, the lady in front

The male on his own – resplendent in his psychedelic finery

The wigeon is a resident breeder in the UK and it’s conservation status is amber, which surprised me because I see plenty of them on the lakes around Cambridgeshire. They are vegetarians feeding on leaves and shoots and rhizomes, and in my view they are one of our prettiest ducks.

So no bittern on this trip but lots of other wildlife on the water and in the trees!

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26 responses to “Ever the optimist

  1. Ah, these are gorgeous. I believe I have seen wigeons around in the summer here in Helsinki. Is that possible? Beautiful feathers and vibrant colours especially the male. Sharon

  2. Good to see the first spring photos, – and to see the robin, it is such a sweet little bird.

    • They are delightful little birds. But they’re ferocious too, I saw my resident robin chase off a wood pigeon this morning, the only other garden birds that are safe from the robin is the blackbird, and they don’t take abuse from anyone!

      • Oh – nteresting, I´ve never thought of robins as ferocious. I’ll pay attention to that from now on.

      • Oh yes, especially at this time of year. Also in the winter when food is scarce they have their territories which they will fight to the death to defend. My resident is a very feisty little chap, especially with the dunnocks, he gives them an amazingly hard time.

  3. I loved all of the photos, especially of the wigeons! How pretty they are. And the beautiful Robin, so different from what we call “robin” here.

    • I think the male wigeon is a very handsome bird, they were paddling around with tufted ducks and gadwall and shoveller too, but they were the highlight, resplendent in their mating season finery!

  4. What a wonderful mix. 🙂

  5. I hadn’t even heard of the gadwall until reading this post, thank you for the education, Finn. I agree with you that the wigeon are beautiful, but the bird that pleases me most in this post is the moorhen. I love seeing them, and coots, and I think I would bounce up and down with delight if I saw a bittern.

    • Moorhen are delicate pleasant little chaps, unlike their brassier cousins the coot, who are thugs! But I’m sticking with the wigeon as my favourite duck. The other bird which was the highlight of this outing was the treecreeper. I don’t see them very often so I’m always pleased to see one and they’re interesting to watch as they spiral around the trunks and branches in a corkscrew pattern.

      • I meant to add that I loved your robin photo, it’s a cracker. I agree with you about treecreepers too, they are a delight. I see them sometimes from my bedroom window, there’s one particular tree they seem to enjoy creeping up, and it always feels like a magical moment to glimpse them.

      • The robin made me laugh. I’d set my camera up on the tripod to overlook the lake through the gap in the trees and was busy snapping away, the robin just arrived and looked at me as though to say he thought I should be somewhere else, like only robins can. So his portrait had to appear in this post!

  6. What a wealth of birds! With spring wending its merry way over to you (take it PLEASE we can’t handle this summer for much longer!) the birds are going to start doing their thing in droves and will give you ample opportunity to share them with us all. I love seeing these exotics (to us) and look forward to these posts :). At the moment we have raven’s trying to tell us something whenever we go out the back door. My guess is it is something along the lines of “DON’T GO OUT THE BACK DOOR!”…;)
    A gorgeous robin, a plethora of ducks, no bittern BUT after everything else, an opportunity that was definately NOT missed 🙂

    • Everything’s relative isn’t it. Raven are very exotic where I come from, I see them occasionally at the coast but never further inland. Sounds like yours really is a harbinger of doom. Magnificent birds though! BTW I’ll be happy to take the sunshine as you slip into autumn and spring time arrives here. I’m fed up with being cold now!

      • I can understand totally, the flip side for us has knobs on! ;). We are tired of being “dry” and rain is a luxury that we can only dream of at the moment. I will send you a few ravens with our sunshine 😉

      • I know what you mean about dry. We were in droubt in the UK after two years with virtually no rain, then it started raining… and raining… and raining. And it didn’t stop for around 10 months so we had some very serious flooding all over the country. The problem we have up here is that the melting northern ice cap is causing instability in the jet stream which determines what sort of weather we have and when. So I reckon we’re just going to have to get used to erratic and extreme weather. Is their similar stuff going on in the southern hemisphere? I hope you guys get some rain soon.

      • We are getting less and less rain and hotter and hotter weather…I would rather more than less rain to be honest. At least things grow

  7. Wow, quite a productive outing, Finn, even though you missed the main object of your quest. I hope you weren’t to bitternly disappointed. But at least lots of others seemed ready to fill in the gap, and the light was lovely, too!

    • The light was really interesting. The lakes are surrounded by mature woodland so the light changed constantly as the sun rose and the colours and reflections on the water through up some very pleasing photographic opportunities. Lots to see so I wasn’t too bitternly disappointed 🙂

  8. Wonderful photos, what a great walk!

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