Tuesday, 19 June 2012

From the edge of the reeds

It is a cool and overcast morning and not at all like summer. The water through which I am slowly working my way, a great expanse of flooded gravel pit, feels warmer than the air above and I am glad of the long-sleeved top and chest waders I am wearing. The long sleeves also offer protection against the biting insects that cloud the shallows, where small willows overhang and fringing reedbeds crowd and jostle. It is slow work, moving carefully through the reeds and looking for the reed warbler nests that are the core of our study. The bigger beds feel exotic, like a scene from an old movie set in the jungles of the Far East; who knows what will be revealed when I emerge from the dense growth.

Many of the reed stems show signs of other inhabitants ­– the haul-out site of choice for dragonfly and damselfly nymphs. It is the crisp and fragile exoskeletons from which the dragonflies have already emerged that I most often encounter but sometimes it is the dragonflies themselves, fresh and glistening with their newly expanded wings, resting before their first flight.

The reed warblers chart my progress, a bird rattling into song as I enter its territory and approach the nest. A quick check of the contents or, if it is a new nest, some measurements on its location and the addition of a grid reference from the GPS. Then I am off again, working each bed and each pit to build up a picture of this breeding population.

There are moments when I am still, perhaps taking notes or scanning for the origins of a particular call. It is at such times that I blend in and become part of the reedbed. The other inhabitants sometimes stumble across me; the toad that bumps into my waders, the lazy pike that glides in and takes up station in the shadow I cast. Then, today, it is an otter that approaches across the corner of the pit, unawares. I stand motionless, not daring to imagine that the otter will continue on a course that will see it reach a point just a few feet in front of me. The broad dark head, with even darker eyes, seems fixed on me but still it comes on. Then, barely an otter’s length distant, it unravels my outline from the vegetation and wheels away in a single, noisy movement. The great head vanishes below the surface and with a powerful motion of the tail it is gone, a trail of bubbles the only evidence of its departure. It is a magical moment, my first encounter with this most wonderful of creatures at this site.

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