Duties as the family taxi driver meant an opportunity to get out to Stodmarsh National Nature Reserve on Thursday of this week, a bonus trek for me not to be missed. There is a hide there which has a couple of sticks planted in the shallows right in front of it. The sticks are there to serve as fishing posts for the local kingfishers and they use them regularly. Consequently they have become possibly the most photographed sticks in the whole of the western hemisphere, along with the kingfishers that use them. I planned to add my own photos to the many and to get my eye back in sketching one of my favourite birds.
When I woke the weather was less than promising. Heavy rain and strong winds had settled in over night leaving me thinking that the whole day could turn into nothing more than a damp squib. Not one to be put off however, I made the journey anyway, battling winds strong enough to take the car in unwanted directions and rain driven into the windscreen so hard that the wipers struggled to keep up. When I did get to the reserve the rain had begun to ease a little but the wind remained violent. I waited quietly in the car until I thought I wouldn't drown if I ventured out, and I packed my gear in plastic for the walk to the hide. The wind was bitter and biting, it whipped across the rain soaked fields turning the raindrops into a million little needles that buried themselves into my face, not pleasant, and why does wind always have to blow directly into my face I wondered.
The hide was like a little luxury, somewhere out of the stinging rain. I peeled off some of the dripping outer layers and settled to watch the activity on the pool in front. There was a large flock of teal out on the choppy water, bobbing about like a flotilla of small boats riding out a storm in an uncertain harbour, and once in a while a lone gull would wing past pulled at by the wind. Gradually the rain lessened and the birds began to relax a little. Three redshanks appeared and began feeding over the far side, constantly moving, their long beaks probing the mud and their sharp rear ends in the air. The teal flock moved on and a little egret flew in, amazingly dazzlingly white against the grey water. He settled into the lee of some reeds and began to preen, keeping his crisp, bright whites clean despite living a life closely tied to sticky marsh mud. Egrets are recent arrivals to the UK first being seen regularly in 1989 and breeding here first in 1996. They are now relatively common in Southern Engald and are extending their range steadily northwards. I must admit that because I see them so regularly I often take them for granted but I really shouldn't. They are graceful little birds all floaty plumes and soft white feathers. When they lift their feet from the water they seem to be wearing bright cadmium yellow slippers at the end of long black limbs.
The sun miraculously appered and drenched the reserve in clear, cold, liquid gold light and the bird I'd waited for appeared in a flash of blue and orange low over the water. He perched in the sun on one of the famous sticks and posed for me a while. It was good to get my kingfisher fix and I feel another painting coming on.
After a whole morning of watching from the hide I decided that I should walk the reserve for a while before it was time to pick up my son from uni. The ground was so sticky and slippery that it felt like skiing most of the time. Each time I planted my feet they would slip backwards or sideways and I must have looked comical trying to stay upright with my arms and tripod flapping about like rags in a tree. The reward though was worth the effort. A startled flock of lapwing alerted me to a bird of prey and, as I focussedthe binoculars I recognised the ring of white at the base of the tail that signals a hen harrier. A scarce bird here with less than 800 breeding pairs their numbers are boosted slghtly during the winter by birds coming over from the continent. I see marsh harriers regularly but the thrill of a bird seen maybe twice in a year is hard to beat and I left the reserve a happy man.
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