The ranger’s winter highlight: Thoughts on the visiting Bittern.  

From the middle of January to mid February we were blessed at Montrose Basin by the presence of a very scarce winter visitor – a Bittern.  This bird caught everyone’s attention and our Visitor Centre Assistant, Benedict, recently revealed in a blog that his first glimpse of the strange, skulking creature was the moment the penny dropped and he understood the fascination that goes with the birding way of life.

Benedict wasn’t alone in his excitement at seeing the Bittern on the Montrose Basin Local Nature Reserve; it was a first sighting for me too and I found myself unable to take my eyes off it on those rare, special moments when it came out into the open in the salt pans area. Checking the scope for any hint of movement in the reeds where it may be hiding became a ritual when I started my day – ‘What a fantastic place to work!’, I thought every morning.

 The Bank of Scotland Hide located at the bottom of the Visitor Centre car park was a hive of activity every day as people heard the news that travelled across the birding community and came in hope from far afield.  Many were lucky and saw the Bittern out in the open, crossing the pools of the salt pans and foraging for food, others saw a glimpse of it perfectly camouflaged in the reeds while others left disappointed.

Bittern on frozen pool, source: Ron Mitchell

Among the visitors were amateur and professional photographers who made the most of the opportunity to take some fantastic shots of the Bittern. One photographer was granted a permit to erect a hide before dawn and leave after dusk (meaning no disturbance was caused) with the hope of gaining some high quality images. Unfortunately the Bittern hadn’t been seen and it is likely that the spell of cold weather just prior to that day, resulting in more of the pools freezing over, had caused the Bittern to move on in search of a more consistently available food source.

All staff, volunteers and regular visitors to the reserve couldn’t believe how lucky we had been and every day felt sure ‘this must be the morning where we discover it has moved on’, but the weeks passed with daily sightings much to everyone’s surprise.  According to the 2007 edition of Birds of Scotland (known in the Montrose Basin ranger office as ‘the book with all the answers’) between 2 and 10 Bitterns were recorded annually in Scotland between 1990 and 2004 with 85% of sightings between October and March and peaking in January. Though it is acknowledged that these birds may go undetected due to their evasive nature, we still all felt thrilled to be observing Bittern behaviour so regularly.

The last time I saw the Bittern was 16th February and though I was saddened that it had moved on, I felt privileged that Montrose Basin was graced with the presence of such a secretive red listed bird for over a month. Along with many who were gripped by the Bittern, I am anxious to find out if we get a repeat visit next winter and come October I am sure to find myself not only looking to the skies to count thousands of Pink-footed Geese, but also scanning the salt pans for subtle movements in the reeds that may reveal the well camouflaged skulking Bittern foraging for food among the pools.

Anna Cheshier, Montrose Basin Ranger

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From the middle of January to mid February we were blessed at Montrose Basin by the presence of a very scarce winter visitor – a Bittern.  This bird caught everyone’s …

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