RSPB England’s, Beth Markey, delves into the history and behaviour of the bittern – a bird that has defied the odds and made its way back into the hearts and minds of bird lovers across the country.
Once numerous across our wetlands, bitterns have overcome enormous hurdles in a seemingly endless battle against extinction. From just 11 calling males in the 1990s to today’s soaring population of more than 200, the bittern has become an emblem of optimism in a growing fight for ecological survival.The bittern owes its success to dogged determination from nature organisations (with generous funding from the EU-LIFE project) that have worked relentlessly to curb this species demise. But efforts don’t just stop at bitterns. Brand-new reedbed habitats, created to home and protect breeding bitterns, have had significant benefits for wetland species including water voles and the reed leopard moth.
For this alone, the bittern is well deserving of the Bird of the Decade crown.
About the bittern
Photo credit: Ben Andrew
The timid bittern is a master of disguise. Dubbed ‘the loudest bird in Britain’, you’ve more likely heard a bittern’s booming call than seen one in the flesh.
Slinking silently amongst the reedbeds, bitterns remain cloaked from prying human eyes for most of the year, much in contrast to their gregarious cousin, the grey heron. But in spring, they shake off their secretive customs in search of mates, issuing rumbling booms that exceed more than 100 decibels in volume.
Although nowadays, the bittern’s hollow call is considered a rare treat, it could be heard in abundance prior to the late Victorian era. So plentiful were bitterns, that they merited themselves several local nicknames, including bog blutter, buttle, bumbagus, myre-dromble, miredrum, bog-bluiter and butterbump.
Sadly, habitat degradation, hunting and slow breeding growth caused this bird’s rapid decline, with the species going extinct in the UK at the end of the 19th Century and again, after a slow return, teetering on the brink of a second extinction much later in the 20th Century. The bitterns’ historical decline and specific conservation needs - well-managed reedbeds with easy access to fish - kept it on the UK’s red list for many years.
A group of bitterns is known as a sedge, pretence or a siege, although on the whole they are solitary creatures. Being quite new on the scene, scientists and conservationists are still exploring the behaviours of this reticent bird, and flocks have occasionally been observed.
Photo credit: Ben Andrew
Where to see bitterns
These days, you can find bitterns in plenty of sites across England, with the majority taking up residence in Somerset. 38 of Somerset’s 48 booming males can be found at RSP Ham Wall, Natural England’s Shapwick Heath and Somerset Wildlife Trust’s Westhay Moor. Bitterns can also be found at the Fens, on the Suffolk coast and the Norfolk Broads, to name some of the more populous areas.
The best time to visit is during the spring breeding season, although males can start booming as early as late January in a bid to establish territory. Bitterns can be found on the following RSPB reserves. Why not get in touch with your nearest reserve to find out more about your local ‘siege’?
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