It was last August that I saw my first ever Little Bittern (Ixobrychus minutus) and it was right here in Mora d’Ebre, from the balcony of our lounge! Though often seen at the Ebro Delta or at the nature reserve in Flix I wasn’t aware that the Little Bittern was present on our section of the river. I checked with some of the birders who regularly stay in our holiday apartments, and only one of them reports ever seeing a Little Bittern here in Mora. He only had one brief sighting over the 2 weeks he was here, and it being late April when migratory birds are returning, assumed that the bird he saw was passing through.
This year, during the last week of April, I was watching a group of yellow and grey wagtails on a raft of weed around the reeds, when into my field of vision flew a Little Bittern! It scuttled quickly into the reeds but it was a bittern for sure. Over the next few weeks I had several sightings and I began to suspect that there were two. The suspicion was confirmed when one day I saw two fly from the reeds to the tamarisk tree! A pair! This was exciting! Could they be nesting here?
Around the 16th of June I found out that on the 20thJune they were going to open the dam upriver, as they do each Spring and Autumn to flush the river. The river would rise by about 3 metres (nearly 10 feet). No!! This would completely submerge the reeds and any un-fledged chicks were sure to perish.. Sure enough on the 20th the river began to rise and within an hour the reeds were almost covered. I took my bins and camera and went down to the riverbank to start my “Bittern-Watch”. Almost immediately I saw a Little Bittern fly from the near river bank over to the island and land in the crown of their favourite tamarisk tree which was by now ¾ underwater. I scanned the tops of the few remaining reeds still visible above the water and spotted another adult Bittern. My heart sank. Could that be the mother keeping vigil near to where their nest had been deep in the reeds? Over the next 15 minutes I watched these birds move constantly between the tree the reeds and the bank. They were clearly very agitated. Then, as one of them landed once more in the tamarisk I saw something in there move towards it – a juvenile Little Bittern! (Sorry that the photos are not very good, with the river in flood I was 25 metres further away from the island than normal.)
It turned out that this young one was fully fledged and a few minutes later it flew with its parents into the reeds. Who knows how many chicks this pair had had but at least one of them had survived.
I relaxed a little and continued to watch all 3 birds for the next hour. Given that these birds are so secretive and normally hard to see, it was, in spite of the circumstances, a real treat to see a family of them flying around so openly. And it was proof that we do have Little Bitterns breeding on the river here in Mora d’Ebre!
Could it be – being the secretive birds that they- that they have always bred here and we just haven’t noticed them? Given the sightings I had last August it is possible that they been here for the last couple of years, but I’m inclined to think that they have not been here for longer than that. And here is why: I dug out some photographs taken in 2002 and I was totally surprised at the absence of reeds on the “island”. They have grown almost without us realising!
We have also had a pair of purple herons around since Spring, that we often see early in the mornings and in the evening, hunting in the shallow waters at the edge of the island. Observing where they fly off to, I have a feeling that they may be nesting on the far side of the “island”. It seems our little reed bed is doing a great job in attracting more species to this section of the river!
Update 30th July: A clear sighting this morning of an adult and a juvenile purple heron!