Herons, a Marsh Bunting and a Woodpecker …
(Click on images to enlarge)
Saturday April 23rd 2011: 07:00 finds me out on the pipes again. It’s sunny, warm and the sky is bright blue, as has been the norm of late. There was a different feel to the marsh today – not something I can easily explain: vibrancy seemed very much subdued. Even the pigeons were few and far between, the mallards were not at their usual places and there was no sign of any cormorants. There was bird song, but nowhere as much as there had been yesterday and what there was seemed half-hearted. The air was full of flying insects, blossom petals and floating seeds.
When I eventually arrived at the southern end of the North Pond, I hadn’t taken a single photograph. I sat under a tree for half an hour waiting for the marsh to wake-up, but it didn’t and nothing came along that was worth photographing. A few birds flew here and there, mainly pigeons, and the ever-present tits chirped away in the trees and bushes, but there was a definite lack of urgency about the morning – I could almost hear the birds yawning. I walked up and down the pond bank a few times looking into the depth of the pond, which becomes more clearly visible in places as the water level continues to drop. All I can remember seeing was a duck flying overhead. I can honestly say that time was beginning to drag.
I moved in amongst the trees on the eastern bank of the pond and waited some more, but it was just not happening. I thought about going home and coming back later, but if it is quiet and slow now it is likely to be quiet and slow later, too.
The call of a distant heron spurred me forward to a decision: I would visit the heronry. Trying to get decent photographs at the heronry requires camouflage netting and a lot of patience. I didn’t have a decent sized camouflage net with me and my patience was already wearing a bit thin, but it would be an opportunity to check on the herons and find out if anyone has been around disturbing them. There should be chicks on the nests by now, and the adults would be vigilant.
I worked my way to the one place I could get a reasonably decent view of the heronry, without being too intrusive. Last year’s carpet of white, dry, and brittle Himalayan Balsam stalks made stealthy progress almost impossible. No matter how careful I was, loud crackling and crunching noises echoed through the trees with every falling footstep; progress was, necessarily, very slow.
The herons really are VERY vigilant and a couple of sentries will be on duty at all times, until the chicks have fledged. If the sentries see an unusual movement, or hear an unfamiliar noise, the scouts will fly out on a reconnaissance mission.
I searched through my camera bag for any items of camouflaged clothing that might be hidden beneath all my photography paraphernalia. I found: a camo-net balaclava to wear under my wide-brimmed wallaby skin hat; a small camo-scrim cape to put over my shoulders for shape disruption, and fingerless gloves to prevent my white hands flashing like beacons. I approached the heronry wearing every piece of camouflage clothing I had liberated from my bag, plus a few leafy branches pushed into my scrim cloak for good measure. At the heronry I crawled to a tree and pressed myself tightly up against its trunk. The sentry immediately heard me, or saw a branch move, and despatched a scouting patrol to fly a few search patterns. I was reasonably sure that the scouts didn’t spot me, because they returned to the heronry and the birds settled down. If the scouts had seem me, they would be flying in circles above me until I moved away. The two sentries remained vigilant, standing smartly to attention and scanning the ground around them. I could hear chicks chattering in their nests. It wasn’t just my movements and noise I need to worry about, I also had to avoid alarming the many tweety birds in the trees all around me.
The Marsh Bunting on the right was extremely interested in what I was up to. He watched me for ages, flying from one tree to another. I thought he was going to spill the beans at one point, but he eventually gave up and went on his way without having uttered a tweet.
The photographs in the slide-show below show a sentry on the nest and the scouts over-flying my hiding place. I stayed only long enough to take a few photographs and to check the area for evidence of intrusion by other interested parties. I found footprints and a marked trail to the heronry. If there is either a perceived or actual danger, the herons will fly off to a safe distance and the chicks will huddle down in the nests until the danger has passed. Great care is to be taken when approaching a heronry; if sufficiently frightened, the herons might abandon their nests and chicks.
I went home for dinner before moving on to Hoo Wood, where I hoped to get a shot or two of a green woodpecker; he seems to avoid me when I have my camera with me, and drums like mad thing when I leave my camera at home. There have been many times over the last couple of days, when I have been out walking on the marsh, when I have heard the woodpecker drumming in Hoo Wood. Anyway, I walked past an old woodpecker’s hole, 1.8 metres up the trunk of a young oak tree, without consciously noticing it – it was last year’s excavation. My daydreaming trance broke when it suddenly dawned on me that there were feathers sticking out of the side of that oak tree! I turned around, walked back and, sure enough, there were green woodpecker feathers sticking out of the hole – I could hear the little fella pecking away inside. So I stood back and waited with my camera pointing at his nether regions until he decided it was time to back out of the hole. I then let fly with a camera burst as he wriggled out (see the slide-show below).