Friday, 18 April 2014

So steady, so stealthy

Little Bittern (Mark Johnson)

The short, dagger-like bill appeared first, from behind the wide lime-green Typha leaves at the edge of the channel. It was as if in slow motion a coil was being relaxed. The bright orange-yellow appendage being pushed by a hidden force. The movement was even, consistent, the bill entering the scene on a perfect level plane. Following the bill came the head, our focus drawn to the ruddy-coloured eye. This, however, was not returning its gaze, for the creature was concentrating elsewhere. The inky blue-black crown and grey-saffron suffused cheeks came next, slowly backed-up by a neck which lingered and stretched in a determinate glide, the stripes on its lower half matching the colours of the dead stems around it. The front half of the body then came into view, its back matching the colour of the crown, whilst emblazoned like huge epaulets on the wings were patches of the palest buff. Suddenly the motion accelerated and in what was a mere fraction of a second, the bill had retreated, a tiny silver of fish borne at its tip and a droplet of water fell from its catch.

Sally described it as a tingling moment, and that is exactly what I had felt too. Mark, Sally and I had spent the morning visiting different parts of the Arrocampo reservoir, places of Typha marsh, all of which I knew as haunts of Little Bittern, one of our hoped-for species for the day. We had enjoyed superb views of singing Savi's Warblers, watched Purple Herons coming and going from their colonies, even seen the far less common Squacco Heron, but not even a brief flight view of Little Bittern had been granted to us. As their guide, I was getting a little nervous. We had to leave the area shortly, Mark and Sally's holiday was coming to an end and the drive back to Madrid was the prospect for the afternoon. I decided to return to the spot where we had started from that morning. We stood looking down a channel, appearing at first glance much quieter than it had done a few hours earlier. The bird song was subsiding, the flights of herons now less frequent. One last scan, I thought and I looked once more at the interface of marsh and water. And there, right in front of us, almost wholly obscured by Typha stems, so that only a tiny portion of its back was visible, was a male Little Bittern. I whispered to the others that I had found what we had been looking for and set up the telescope to get a closer view. Mark instinctively crouched down, camera at the ready. We stood and watched as the bird, instead of slinking off to disappear in the vegetation, started to hunt. It was obvious of our presence, as we focused on it, it was intent on the tiny fishes just beyond the mat of floating vegetation on which it stood.

Mark's photo appears above and three times the Little Bittern stretched forward to fish. It was an extraordinary and most fitting culmination to the week I had spent showing Mark and Sally the birds of spring-time in Extremadura. I had anticipated finding Little Bittern at several places that we had visited during the week, where a bird flying up from emergent vegetation along a lowland river, or standing in view from the Roman Bridge in Mérida would have been almost half-expected. Instead we were rewarded by an experience combining a basket of emotions, of suspence and intimacy, a golden moment that will always be remembered, always treasured.

It had been a hugely successful week in Extremadura for Mark and Sally, with 169 species of birds, 13 species of orchids, as well as a good selection of butterflies and dragonflies. But it was much much more than numbers and checklists. They had taken back with them superb photographs of many of the birds, plants and landscapes, but perhaps most deeply, the lingering memories of encounters like the Little Bittern, or six Black Storks together riding the up-currents of air against a rock-face, or a Spanish Imperial Eagle preening in the morning sunshine before taking off, giving its barking call against a cloudless sky.

Spanish Imperial Eagle (Mark Johnson)

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