Header image: Bittern in the reedbed at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands, Credit: Andrew Wallbank @atwallbank Twitter
Instantly recognisable to many, and always a joy to hear, today the booming call of the bittern rings out across wetland habitats throughout England during the nesting season.
But go back just 20 years and this secretive, heron-like bird was perilously close to extinction in the UK. It’s thanks to the work of conservation groups, including the RSPB, to restore and create new wetlands areas that this wonderful species has been helped back from the brink.
By the 1870s, bitterns were already considered extinct as a breeding species in the UK. The 20th century saw a resurgence in the breeding population, but by 1997, bittern numbers were once again on the verge of total collapse, with only 11 males left.
To turn the tide, conservation groups, including the RSPB, took swift action to safeguard the remaining bittern population. Work focused on restoring reedbeds as part of EU-funded projects and ensuring legal safeguards through the creation of Special Protection Areas (SPAs).
Following decades of wetland habitat and species decline, a wetland revival is now well underway. At RSPB reserves across England we have carried out ambitious schemes to create new wetland areas and plant reedbeds from scratch, along with habitat restoration work to ensure existing wetland areas are managed in a way that provides a safe space for our wildlife.
Wetlands are incredible places for nature and last year’s bittern breeding success stories are a shining example of how supporting the RSPB’s work directly impacts some of our most at-risk species.
2021 saw the ‘booming bittern bounce-back’ continue at RSPB sites across England. These success stories show just how quickly a specialist species close to extinction can recover with the right conservation support.
At RSPB Middleton Lakes, bitterns successfully raised five young in 2021, marking the first recorded breeding success of this species in the West Midlands for more than 100 years. The last known breeding record is from Sutton Park in 1886, however, this record has been labelled unreliable.
Bitterns normally nest in large reedbeds. Yet incredibly, not one, but two female bitterns chose to nest in a small section of restored reedbed at the RSPB Middleton Lakes reserve, allowing visitors to enjoy fantastic views of this normally secretive species.
Kate Thorpe, Site Manager at RSPB Middleton Lakes, said: “We were delighted to hear our first ever booming bittern on the reserve last March and monitored the site to see if it found a mate. We were amazed when we realised we had two successful nests in the restored reedbed – one on either side of the county borders. It really goes to show the impact good habitat management can have for threatened species. The work our expert staff and dedicated volunteers have done to bring these birds back to the reserve is incredible.”
Above image: Juvenile bittern, approx. 35 days old, sat up in the reeds at RSPB Middleton Lakes. Photo credit Mark Smiles
RSPB Middleton Lakes is one of the charity’s newest reserves and in just 14 years has become regionally important for overwintering wildfowl including tufted duck, teal and shoveler. SITA – now Suez Community Trust (via the Landfill Community Fund), the Environment Agency and the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Tame Valley project have all supported work to make a better home for nature at the former sand and gravel quarry.
Central to habitat restoration plans at Middleton Lakes has been the creation of a six hectare reedbed. Willow scrub was removed and the area reprofiled before volunteers planted 10,000 reed plugs brought in from RSPB Langford Lowfields, Nottinghamshire. The reedbed pool has provided the perfect nesting habitat for this year’s breeding bitterns, while a separate new reedbed on the reserve has become an important feeding area.
Bitterns first recolonised the south and east of England, but habitat creation and restoration work taking place across the north of the country is helping the species extend its range.
RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands on the Dee Estuary near Chester attracted a pair of breeding bitterns for the very first time in 2021. Excitement began with the arrival of a booming male in spring and visitors were soon treated to plenty of feeding flights across the reserve. As well as being an incredibly positive sign for future breeding, the bitterns’ arrival is a testament to the health of the reserve’s reedbed habitat, which was planted from scratch less than 15 years ago.
Above image: Bittern above RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands. Photo credit Andrew Wallbank @atwallbank Twitter
Further north, at RSPB Leighton Moss near Carnforth, an incredible six booming males were heard in spring – the largest number recorded on the reserve since the 1990s. Ongoing work to create new wetland habitats and restore the site’s existing reedbeds also led to bitterns nesting on one of the reserve’s satellite sites for the very first time.
Image right: Bittern in flight at RSPB Leighton Moss. Photo credit Jarrod Sneyd
At RSPB St Aidan’s near Leeds, four booming males were heard during last year’s breeding season, with four nests confirmed on site – the highest number of ‘boomers’ since 2014 and the highest number of nests ever.
Nearby, at RSPB Fairburn Ings, staff and volunteers recorded two booming bitterns. Once home to the largest colliery spoil heap in Europe, Fairburn Ings has been transformed into a home for nature. The mix of wetland areas, grassland and woodland now attract some of the UK’s rarest and most beautiful wildlife including bittern, bearded tit, Cetti’s warbler, little egret and spoonbill.
At RSPB Dearne Valley – Old Moor, south east of Barnsley, up to four booming males were recorded, along with early regular sightings of a matriarch female on her third season.
RSPB Ouse Fen near Cambridge also enjoyed a record-breaking year, with 12 booming bitterns on site in 2021. The reserve is part of an ambitious 30-year landscape-scale conservation scheme to covert a working sand and gravel quarry into a wildlife-rich wetland habitat that will cover an area equivalent to 980 football pitches by 2030.
Since Ouse Fen’s first bittern arrived six years into the project, their population has continued to increase with the expending wetland landscape. Some boomers were even recorded on the most recently restored 80ha part of the site, which only transferred to the RSPB last June. Nearby RSPB Lakenheath Fen equalled its best-ever year for booming bitterns with 11 recorded during the season.
A total of three ‘boomers’ were heard across RSPB reserves in the Mid-Yare Valley, Norfolk, with one confirmed successful nest. In Suffolk, at RSPB Dingle Marshes and RSPB Minsmere, 10 booming males were recorded, and there were nine confirmed nests across both sites.
Above image: Bittern in the reedbed at RSPB Lakenheath Fen. Photo credit Dave Rogers
At RSPB Dungeness in Kent, staff and volunteers carry out extensive habitat work each winter to help create the right conditions for bitterns. Their efforts are paying off as six booming males were heard at the reserve in 2021, believed to be a county record.
Meanwhile, across Somerset, a total of 34 male bitterns were recorded – 16 of them at RSPB Ham Wall near Glastonbury. Other boomers were heard at the RSPB’s West Sedgemoor and Greylake reserves, and at Natural England and Somerset Wildlife Trust reserves.
The bittern is a secretive bird and typically very difficult to see. Excellent camouflage allows them to quietly slink through their favoured reedbed territories unnoticed. Between January and April, you’re actually more likely to hear this elusive bird than see it. Male bitterns have a distinctive booming call which they use to establish territories and attract mates. It’s a deep, resonating sound that has been known to travel as far as five kilometres, earning the bittern the title of Britain’s loudest bird.
Interested in learning more about this rare and secretive species? How about joining one of our guided bittern walks this spring at RSPB Strumsphaw Fen in Norfolk? You’ll have the opportunity to find out all about this fascinating bird and how we’re managing our reserves to preserve its habitat.
Becoming a member of the RSPB is a great way to support our wetland projects across England. As well as helping us to continue vital conservation work to protect the wildlife and wild places you love, you’ll also enjoy free entry to all RSPB reserves across the UK.
What do you most love about the RSPB’s wetland reserves? Have you managed to catch sight of the illusive bittern? We’d love to hear all about your experiences – get in touch on social media using the hashtag #WinterWetlands and remember to tag @RSPBEngland
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