Another early start for a London Natural History Society meeting, this time the destination was the Lee Valley Country Park at Cheshunt, a range of flooded pits by the canal and bits of the original river Lee/Lea. The ground was covered with a mix of frost and a thin layer of snow when I left the house, and the final leg was a replacement bus service due to rail engineering work. But it turned out to be very well worth while. I saw 48 species. There were a few more that others saw but I missed.
The leader, Roy Woodward, did an excellent job of trying to make sure everyone saw everything, and gave a good commentary on the key distinguishing features of the species we were observing. Both he and others generously invited participants that didn't have them to take a look through their telescopes for a better view.
Mainly due to other's expertise I got to see several species I'd never seen before, or had only seen rarely a very long time ago. I was impressed by some people's ability to identify a black speck in the sky miles away that I couldn't even see well before thay swung their bins and telescopes into use!
The absolute highlight was a fantastic view of a Bittern, very close to the Bittern Information Point hide on Seventy Acre Lake. For a long time it was lurking in the Phragmites bed where it was extremely well camouflaged, and several folk in the hide just couldn't pick it up however well those that had it in their sights tried to describe where it was in relation to a still-green patch of sedges. When it did move it could be seen turning its head to one side low to water to cut out the effect of ripples and reflections, but it didn't catch anything.
At one point I had what might best be described as a 50% view, with the complete outline visible, but half the bird obscured by reed stems. I expected that to be as good as it would get. But after a patient wait by the assembled throng it finally came out in the open, stood by an old door in the water
[there's a picture part way down this page
http://www.elbf.co.uk/gallery/thumbnails/2010/birdphotos2010h.htm of bird at exactly the same spot a few days previously entitled 'Bittern - Seventy Acres Lake - 28th January - Tony Coombs']
and stood, a golden tan in the low sun, facing the hide, and ruffled its wings. The camera shutters were going like crazy and it felt as if there was about to be a spontaneous round of applause. Someone said out-loud exactly what I was thinking, that they were tempted to clap.
I've never seen a Bittern before - it's very rare but gradually recovering in numbers due to active conservation efforts. Also, according to the 24th January Observer 'This winter's bitter cold has seen record numbers of bitterns fly to Britain from northern Europe and has led others to adopt unusual feeding grounds.' Some of the experienced birders in the hide said it was the best view of one they'd ever had.
Neither words, nor probably photographs can adequately convey the subtlety of the darker markings and effectiveness of the camouflage of this bird. Stunning. Fantastic.
The Bittern rather eclipsed the equally good view of 2 Water Rail right up near the hide. Reed Bunting were also active in the Phragmites beds here.
Views from the Bittern Information Point hide. Water Rail were observed crossing the channels cut in the reeds, and the Bittern stood briefly out in the open in the mouth of the channel on the left of the top picture.
Elsewhere I had a telescope view of a Snipe. Several Goldeneye were seen, Wigeon, 2 Little Grebes and male and female or immature (red-headed) Smew.
Water birds were rounded off in style with great views of a flotilla of 8 Goosander, both male and female, in the late evening sun, with others flying in. Around 17 were counted at this first location, with a few more scattered around the area. On the same body of water was a female Red-crested Pochard, not a native species.
1 Barnacle Goose was spotted in a flock of Canada Geese in a field
Several Siskin were observed feeding in Alder. A few Redpoll were seen and I had a very good view of 1 of them. A distant sight of a female Bullfinch was had.
On the raptor front we saw at least 4 different Buzzards, including two circling together, high overhead in the clear blue sky. Also 1 Sparrowhawk and 1 Kestrel.
All in all a superb outing.