Old Moor – 11 May 2019

Helen and I paid a visit to Old Moor today. A number of good Bittern sightings have been made there recently, as their breeding season gets underway again, and we thought we’d have a go at spotting one.

The weather was a bit changeable when we arrived in the Dearne Valley, not cold, but it was threatening rain, so we had raincoats with us as a precaution.

For the vast majority of my visits to Old Moor (almost a hundred now), I’ve favoured the Green Lane Trail which has several great hides and has produced scores of excellent sightings for me over the years. However, today we chose the Reedbed Trail in order to maximise our chances of spotting a Bittern.

Our first stop was at the Bird Garden, which is just outside the Visitors’ Centre and must be passed before getting onto the reserve proper. I usually use the opportunity of starting a visit to Old Moor in the Bird Garden Hide to ensure all my camera settings are correct for that day’s shooting, and that my memory cards are cleared and ready for whatever birds may soon be on the other end of my lens. On this occasion three beautiful male Bullfinches were feeding just infront of the hide and I couldn’t resist taking a few shots of those before moving-on.


This male Bullfinch was willing to pose for my camera as it fed on seeds in the Bird Garden

About five minutes walk from the Visitors’ Centre is the Bittern Hide. This is a fairly recently-built hide, on a raised piece of land, which provides a commanding view over a medium-sized lake and the extensive reedbeds beyond. Also visible from here are the Reedbed Screen and Reedbed Hide. Although the Reedbed Screen and Hides are much closer to the Bittern nesting sites, a more-panoramic view is provided from the Bittern Hide (the clue’s in the name really!) and hence most of Old Moor’s Bittern sightings are made from here. (The real prize location, however, is to be allocated a session in the Bittern Monitoring Hide during the breeding season, which is by application only and not open to casual visitors).

Great Crested Grebe

A male Great Crested Grebe fishing near the Bittern Hide

Settling-down on the benches in the Bittern Hide reminded Helen and me of our last time watching for Bitterns from this hide, almost three years previously, when I photographed a Bittern flying towards us without realising what the bird was! It was gone in a flash and only then did I cotton-on that it was a Bittern that I’d photographed. Poor Helen missed it completely! Hopefully, today we’d both see one, and properly.

A number of birds were on the lake before us: Great Crested Grebe, Tufted Duck, Canada Geese, Greylag Geese (complete with young), Moorhen and Coot. We continuously scoured the far reedbed for anything that might be ‘Bittern-sized’ whilst simultaneously keeping an eye on the Kingfisher perches from which we have had several really good Kingfisher sightings in the past. After about forty minutes, during which there had been a brief, heavy shower of rain, but no Bitterns (or Kingfishers!) we decided to leave the hide and continue-on around the Reedbed trail to see what else we might find.

The path took us alongside a reedbed which borders the lake, and at several points we stopped to listen to the beautiful singing of one or more Reed Warblers. The birds are generally very difficult to spot, perched as they commonly-are midway up the reeds and usually in the most dense patches, for extra safety. However, today we managed to catch some tantalising glimpses of one of the birds within the reeds, and we managed to capture photographs that were good-enough to confirm the bird’s identification.

Reed Warbler

I can see you! – A Reed Warbler in the reeds near the Reedbed Screen

A brief stop at the Reedbed Screen provided us with a sighting of a lovely male Reed Bunting in one of the trees, whilst dozens of Swifts, Swallows and Sand Martins whizzed-by overhead catching airborne insects.

We completed the tour of the Reedbed Trail by spending some time in the Reedbed Hide. Helen and I both love this hide as it is right up-against the water of a large lake and is an excellent spot for watching waterfowl, in particular. Today, a pair of Tufted Duck were dabbling-about in the water just a few feet from us, with beautiful sunshine showing off their plumage to great effect.

As we continued to watch the skies, a lone Buzzard described lazy circles in the sky above us, a large flock of Black Headed Gulls were making their usual, raucous din on a spit of land around three hundred yards from us, and the Swifts, Swallows and Sand Martins continued to flash past just a few inches above the water’s surface hawking for insects. In short, it was just fabulous and very relaxing to be here watching so much nature ‘doing its thing’.


An utterly dreadful shot, but a photograph of a flying Bittern just the same!

As I watched, I noticed a fairly large, ‘orangey-looking’ bird flying past, a good way off in the distance, I raised my camera and managed to fire-off four frames before the bird disappeared from sight. I wasn’t at all sure what I’d seen, so I reviewed the shots on my camera’s LCD screen and zoomed-in to see if that helped. Imagine my surprise when I realised that once again I’d photographed a Bittern whilst Helen had missed the whole thing! (She was not amused, I can tell you!) The photographs I had managed to capture were quite poor, given the distance the bird was from me when I spotted it, so that didn’t really constitute a ‘good sighting’ in my book. (This information didn’t really do much to mitigate Helen’s sense of frustration, however!).

We eventually made our way back to the car having enjoyed our short visit to Old Moor, as we always do. One day we’ll be sitting in the Bittern Hide and a six Bitterns will come and perform a dance right in front of our cameras – we just have to be patient!

About Alan Gordon

I am a retired teacher and former RAF Musician. I live near Sheffield and enjoy taking photographs of wild birds throughout the UK.
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