Once bittern

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Even by avian standards, bitterns are wickedly shy. They’re quick, too, and very good at vamoosing in the raupō wetlands they favour. Their camouflage is such that even if an exceptionally brazen bittern stalked up and stood right in front of you, you might not see it.

“People who’ve managed to photograph one are pretty happy about it,” said Craig McKenzie, who took on the tough assignment of shooting a whole feature’s worth of frames.

In 20 years of photographing New Zealand birds McKenzie had only seen a single bittern. The first one he saw on the ground—stalking in a pond as he came around a corner—flew off in the few seconds it took to get his gear set up. The key, McKenzie realised, was to lie in wait.

We heard of a birdwatcher who’d found the perfect stake-out spot. She shared her secret, but asked us not to reveal the location. So, picture a rural road beside a wetland on the West Coast. Picture a pair of bitterns wandering along a drainage channel beside that road, every dawn and dusk. Stay in the car, we were told, and they’d stay put. Beauty.

McKenzie did, one morning in the car, but he didn’t like the angle, sat up above the wetland. No bitterns came close enough that first day, anyway. The next morning he arrived in the dark, crawling under a camouflage net thrown over a bush the previous evening. “I could see some of the open water and the drainage channels they were using,” he said. If a bittern came through there, he’d get a good shot.

Nothing on the second morning. McKenzie had been watching this patch of wetland for something like 10 hours now. Then, two hours after dawn on the third morning, boom.

He saw a bittern, just its head, bobbing along in the distance above the reeds. Closer. Closer. Finally, the bird wandered over to the channel McKenzie was staking out, and started to walk towards the perfect spot. It came almost within range—then pivoted and walked away. “A bitter disappointment.” But wait—it turned again. The bird walked straight past the photographer, twice. Must have been a very silent sort of yahoo moment? “Oh yes,” said McKenzie. “It was all very internal.”