The days are getting shorter. Leaves are falling from the trees. Slowly but surely, winter is coming. With short days and harsh weather conditions, it looks like a good period to stay indoors. Spending hours in the cold, looking at reed beds, hoping to find a walking reed, might seem a little strange, to put it mildly. Still, there’s almost nothing I’d rather do on those days!
Large reed beds hide some of the more mysterious creatures in nature. Animals completely adapted to living large portions of their lives deep within the reeds. One particular bird has long fascinated me: the great bittern, a secretive brown heron. Long legs and feet let them move silently and effortlessly through reed. Their striped black and brown plumage blends in perfectly, especially if they are ‘bittering’; a typical pose, with the beak facing up, imitating reed. My favorite kind of reed. They’re also known to mimic the movement of the reeds caused by the wind. Only a couple of months a year, there is a slightly better chance to see them.
In the winter months a large portion of the reed and vegetation dies, which gives us a chance to get some insight into life in the reed beds. Although most of their cover is gone, most bitterns still trust their camouflage, and imagine they are still virtually invisible. During these months, it pays to look into the reeds, looking for movement or any abnormality. Their plumage prevents them for getting seen when they are standing still, but any sort of movement can give them away. I’ve spend many hours looking for them, mostly without result. But every once in a while, you get lucky…
That has happened to me last week. After scanning the reed bed multiple times, my eye catches some movement. Out of nowhere, a bittern jumps up onto the reed! First, struggling to get its balance, then calmly preening. My camera starts to rattle. What an amazing creature! It spends a good amount of time cleaning its feathers with its large beak. Every now and then, it looks around, and starts bittering if something is causing it some sort of distress.
After about an hour a young grey heron drops by. The bittern hides itself in the reeds, while constantly looking at the heron. A tense situation. It is not quite clear who is in charge here, whether or not someone is going to scare off the other. The young heron doesn’t really seem to know or care that the bittern is there though. A couple of minutes pass, and the heron takes off. The bittern raises itself, follows the flightpath of the heron, but stays put, and continues to preen. All is well again.
Dusk has set in, and the light levels are dropping beyond the point of photographing birds. Time to go. On my way home I happily conclude: my first bittern encounter this winter is a fact!