Sunday, 8 December 2013

"Look, a Bittern"

Although I'd seen Shorelark already this year at Winterton beach, I was keen to enjoy a little more of these beauties. There were reports of several on the beach at Great Yarmouth just north of the Britannia pier. I headed there on spec this morning, though there hadn't been any further reports since the huge tidal surges on Thursday evening.
I had a hunch that they may have moved on and this sadly seemed to be the case as I failed to locate any. The best I had was a single Snow Bunting and of course the ever present Med Gulls. Which was not too bad though as there was a range of age groups on show, first, second and adult winter birds.
Seeing as I was in Great Yarmouth I thought to check the cemetery, too late for most stuff, but there's always the outside chance of a Hume's Warbler at this time of the year. You won't find anything if you don't check. I left my camera in the car and just decided to take a walk about. As I passed the holm oaks in the southern section I started to hear some 'crests calling. Something small was moving around down low, just then a Firecrest popped out in full view within about ten feet, I barely needed the bins. Such a pity my camera was back in the car.
I turned back to fetch it and then spent the next hour and a half trying to photograph the Firecrests (there were two). I enjoyed great binocular views but getting a picture was impossible. Still the best views I've had of the GY cemy birds so far and my first ever December record of the species.

Firecrest, Great Yarmouth cemetery, Norfolk - 8th December 2013
The challenge with these birds is of course their size and behaviour, very active and almost always partially or even fully concealed by foliage. In addition the light was low and raising the ISO above 800 in order to get 1/300s or more shutter speeds, just adds too much grain for me.
I'm planning a trip to Magee Marsh in Ohio next May to see warblers. In anticipation of this, I have started to practise using a flash. So far all I've done is set it up outside the house and photograph leaves and bits of branches. Today I gave it a try on the Firecrests, didn't seem to bother them but its still a whole new learning curve for me. Plenty of time to practise between now and next May. In the US, external flashes are widely used, but not so in Britain and Ireland. For that reason I don't plan to use it very much here and I'll limit my use of this technique to inanimate objects and maybe some garden birds, hopefully I'll have the swing of it in time. The above two record shots were both taken without flash. For the technically minded, the set-up I have is a Canon 580 EX II with a Better Beamer flash extender - see below.

External flash and extender
I left the area about 1.30pm and decided to stop off at Buckenham marshes on the way home. Yesterday there were reports in the evening of Taiga Bean Geese being present. Not having seen the species before, it would be worth a stop off. However, I missed a turning somewhere and ended up outside the entrance to Strumpshaw fen instead. With the clock against me, I changed my plans and decided to spend some time there. And it was worth it as you will see if you read on.
In the reception hide I asked if any Bitterns had been seen. Several sightings already this morning from both Fen and Tower hides. Given that I needed to be back in Norwich at 2.45pm, I worked out that I had about 15 minutes in the Fen hide. Not much time to play with really. I walked up there at a brisk pace, the hide was pretty busy but I found a spot and after about five minutes someone muttered, "look, a Bittern" and I got a brief glimpse of one as it flew out of one spot and into an other. I managed a very blurry record shot.

Eurasian Bittern, Strumpshw Fen, Norfolk - 8th December 2013
I am slightly embarrassed to admit that this was a lifer for me. I've seen Little Bittern, Dwarf Bittern and American Bittern but not Eurasian. I guess if I still lived in Ireland there would be no shame, but here in their British stronghold, perhaps there's no excuse. Ok, I'm only living here since last January and they are a relatively secretive bird, but I probably should have seen one before now. In Ireland, shooting and loss of habitat means they haven't bred since 1840 (according to Birds in Ireland). Birds dispersing after the breeding season from the UK and continental Europe may reach Ireland and do winter in milder reedbeds on the south coast (such as Tacumshin, Ballyvergan and Ballycotton). But being so secretive and scarce, I had not been fortunate enough to come across one in my time birding in Ireland. So today was nice.
The bird dropped out of sight and I decided to head home. I'll head back the next time temperatures plummet and the inland waterways freeze over. Hopefully I might get some better views of the species as it forages out in the open.

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