Suffolk: Boom boom boom went the Bittern !!

04th April 2014
Suffolk may well be a lot of people's choice as the best wildlife county in the UK. A big title but their case is a strong one with the river system, wide open fields (ideal for hares), the stunning coastline dominated by Minsmere and the the heathland adjacent to it and then the generally low level of major roads and railways or huge hubs of population to destroy the habitat and restrict movement of the various species. Maybe to be fairer I might just say East Anglia as a whole deserves the title to avoid upsetting my Norfolk friends!!
Well at the end of March myself and my son decided the best way to create the best atmosphere for his GCSE revision was to head out to find a remote cottage and treat it like a boot camp! A bit of research and we ended up in the major section of a a small barn down a long track to nowhere overlooking the Blythe estuary south of Southwold. 15 minutes distance conveniently from Minsmere, Dunwich Heath and 10 mins from Southwold. So a few dawn starts was all I could really justify but as spring gets underway I think being out in the countryside for the dawn chorus is a privilege never a chore :-)
Here a just a few of the images I managed to get in the few hours I had.

Whilst slowly and quietly moving around Dunwich Heath on a misty morning I saw this male Pheasant defending his territory and gradually reduced the distance between us until I got within about 15 yards. Now no one ever said Pheasnats were rare but there is still something stunning about the colours and display of a male bird . I think he deliberately turned his back on this large intruder at first!!

Slowly I moved to try and get the limited early sunshine behind him to enable a nice backlit shot.

The speed of the wing movement is remarkable for such a big bird and even a shutter speed of 1/2000th didn't get close to freezing the wings but I wanted to retain the blur and the "life" within the picture.

He was determined to show who owned this patch and here was definitely "giving me the eye!"

The mysterious Bittern is a bird I had never seen. But being near Minsmere in springtime I knew gave me the best chance of probably anywhere in the country so 3 very early pre-dawn starts (knowing I had to leave by about 0800am each day) I had my fingers crossed. So the first morning as I turn up and clamber under the Island Mere Hide with limited visibility , I see this chap quietly emerge from the reed beds and look for prey about 25 yards in front of me. Alas about 10 minutes later a heavy footed "twitcher" crashed and banged into the hide above me and scared the bird off. Whilst I let a few expletives go under my breath, at least I had captured a few images even if in bad light (these are at 4000iso). Ironically I didn't see another Bittern again that first day or on the other two mornings!!

A classic hunting pose.

...and here the bird adopted what seems a territorial or display pose which was amazing to see as it arched it's wings above it's back and slowly lowered it's head until parallel to the ground .

I also went to Hen Reedbeds Reserve just 5 minutes from our cottage to see the Marsh Harriers which are regular visitors and roost and nest here. They were there and great to watch but always too distant for any worthwhile photography. But determined to get something, late one evening I saw this Little Egret coming into land and roost. Perhaps a Marmite image but I thought it converted quite nicely to black and white.

The last morning produced some gorgeous light and would have been perfect for a Bittern to do his thing for me but whilst that didn't occur there were a few other things to watch. Here a male Shoveler duck lands just after sunrise.

Just a fairly uninteresting picture of a male Teal perhaps but I think sometimes we forget to stop and look and as the sun hit this little chap's feathers the colours and detail were amazing and it's only when you see the image later on the screen you stop and realise the real beauty of nature's design.

.....and a Greylag Goose lands into the sun's first rays

And finally, along with the Bittern, another bird I had never seen was the Dartford Warbler. With this part of Suffolk being one of it's few strongholds I headed on to Dunwich Heath 3 times in 4 days. You tend to hear them before you see them and I felt privileged to have watched them on each day but always from a distance and in the end all I had to show was a slightly grainy cropped image but I still left with a sense of satisfaction and again that realisation that the true reward of wildlife photography is being out in the field amongst nature with no crowds and being part of something that I suspect if more people experienced, then conservation issues would be a higher priority in the world we live in.

And to prove the point that you never know exactly what you'll see out there, as the dawn broke through a very misty last morning of my trip, I came across three Red Deer hinds amongst the heather. They stayed just long enough for me to position one of them with the flowering gorse to add some colour to the image.

Whilst not intended as a 'wildlife' trip it showed me yet again that with a bit of planning and effort and just "getting out there" there is always something that makes that effort worthwhile. My thanks to fellow photographer Jeff Harrison (check out his great website) for the info on the cottage and the friendly people I bumped into in Suffolk.

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