Author: Rupert Masefield, Communications Officer, Eastern England Regional Office (EERO)

Some of my most vivid memories from my childhood are of seemingly endless hours and days spent playing in and exploring nature in the garden at my grandparents’ house. Here, together with my younger brother and assorted cousins and friends, I had many of my first encounters with all kinds of creatures in what, to my young eyes, was a veritable wonderland for wildlife. There were frogs hidden in damp nooks near the pond, where I learned about the amazing life-cycle that sees tadpoles emerge from the submerged spawn and transform as they grow into adult frogs and leave the water for the first time; and all manner of beetles, bugs, woodlice, spiders and other captivating creepy-crawly invertebrates living in the foliage, amongst the leaf-litter and in the soil.

Years later (let’s not go into to how many years), I found myself on one spring afternoon at Minsmere nature reserve another wildlife wonderland for the many people of all ages who visit the reserve to enjoy close encounters with the creatures that live there. Standing on the boardwalk over the shallow water of the Island Mere, surrounded by reedbed and bathed in the warm afternoon spring sunshine, a series of low, mournful notes reached my ears and brought back a memory from those long-but-not-lost days spent as a wildlife explorer in my grandparents’ garden.

Back in that garden, not far from the pond where the frogs laid their spawn, there was a giant ornamental glass bottle sat into a recessed brick alcove. Needless to say, our intrepid gang of garden explorers, because that is what we were, saw this as an opportunity to compete to see who could make the loudest noise by blowing across the mouth of this bottle. The trick was to get the angle just right and not blow too hard, or you got an echoing raspberry, hilarious, but not what we were after. Occasionally, to our delight, one of us would manage to get everything spot on to make a sound like a foghorn that would resonate around the little chamber the bottle sat in and almost deafen the lot of us. The adults in the house were less than delighted, apparently the sound travelled well, and would put a stop to it when it got too much, but there was always the pond!

It was the same sound I was hearing all those years later at Minsmere. I didn’t know it at the time, but we had been imitating the call of the bittern in that garden and now I was standing listening to a ‘booming’ male bittern in real life. There were no bitterns in the garden at my grandparents’ (apart from us), but the time we spent there certainly helped to develop the fascination with nature the sends a tingle down my spine when I hear them today.

Bittern among reeds. Credit: Andy Hay (RSPB)

It is an evocative sound and one that today can be heard not only at Minsmere, but in reedbeds around the country. Now is the perfect time of year to get out there a go in search of the booming bitterns, and I would encourage anyone with an interest in nature to do so and take your kids or grandkids with you!

Bittern factfile

  • Bitterns are members of the heron family
  • They were extinct in the UK at the end of the 19th Century but there are now more than 80 males in East Anglia alone
  • The call of a male bittern can be heard up to three miles away
  • Bitterns are typically very shy birds and are rarely seen, often preferring to sty hidden in the reedbeds where they live

Learn more about bitterns at

Where to hear (and if you’re lucky see) bitterns

In Norfolk, RSPB Strumpshaw Fen in The Broads and Titchwell Marsh nature reserve in North Norfolk.

In Suffolk, RSPB Minsmere on the Suffolk Coast and Lakenheath Fen.

Find an RSPB reserve near you where you can go in search of bitterns:  

Bittern gliding across a reed bed. Credit: John Bridges (RSPB)