Bittern Bird Botaurus stellaris

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Bittern Bird Botaurus stellaris

Bitterns are a member of the heron, stork and ibis family of birds.
The bittern bird, an elusive member of the heron family, was once a fairly common sight in the reed beds of East Anglia in the UK.

Sometimes called ‘booming bitterns’ on account of the male bittern’s distinctive mating call, these birds are now extremely rare. This bittern sound is so unusual that conservationists record them to count their numbers.

The bittern has a strange view of the world. It spends it’s entire life amongst tall, swaying reeds on a flat, lowland, wet landscape of fenland. It is so well-camaflaged that it is generally only seen when in flight. A bittern in flight is most beautiful.

Fenland was drained to form farmland. The East Anglia soils are rich and fertile and valuable for growing crops. Before the UK fens were drained bitterns were a common species of bird of the heron family.

Rarest bird in the UK

Once only a few breeding pairs of bitterns remained in the UK. In the latter half of the 19th century bitterns were virtually extinct in Britain and not seen for decades. The reed beds were silence in Spring with no booming of the bitterns. How sad when the boom of the bittern stopped being heard.

Today bitterns are still one of the rarest birds but due to conservation efforts their numbers are increasing. Focussed conservation efforts and restoration of reed bed habitat is seeing the return of this shy and secretive reed bird. Improvements to habitat management and conservation efforts in partnership with land-owners have helped the bittern and hopefully numbers will continue to increase.

It was not only drainage of the fens that causes the bittern’s demise.  Shooting, egg stealing and other man-made irresponsible behaviour towards this lovely bird caused the bittern population to plummet.

According to the RPSB in 2016 there were more than 160 booming males in the UK.  Experts are able to count bittern numbers based on the male bittern bird’s call which is unique to each bird.  In 1997 there was only 11 booming bittern males in the UK.

Fortunately, continental bitterns recolonised areas of Norfolk and Suffolk and with the help of more kindly and enlightened humans have been helped to maintain these small populations.

Unfortunately since that small but steady come back the bittern birds have suffered decline again due to new factors – water pollution,  recreational activities by humans, some particularly harsh winters when extensive frozen water meant the bittern could not fish and thetefore starved.  Reed bed disturbance caused by introduced coypu – a new world semi-aquatic rodent,  damaged the bitterns habitat.

What does a bittern look like

A bittern is an attractive but unusual looking bird. It is long-necked with a stocky-shaped body. It looks beautiful in flight. Bittern plumage is golden brown with dark mottled colouring. The bittern’s bill is golden-brown.  A bitten bird has a black cap and moustache.

Lighter coloured plumage with reddy-brown lines and patches lies underneath the bittern’s body. When the bittern stands talk amongst the reeds it is well-camouflaged with its distinctive plumage. The graceful neck pointed vertically upwards amongst the reeds gives the bittern a birds-eye view yet remains hidden from view. The striped neck plumage is the colour of reeds.

Bittern’s feet are broad and strong to enable it to walk over damp rotting mats of broken reeds. The eyes are well-forward on its head close to the beak and enables the bittern to hunt for fish and other aquatic prey with great precision and focus.

Bitterns is not too choosy about what it eats but will feed upon fish, amphibians, reptiles, insects, birds and even water voles.

Booming bitterns

During spring the male bittern has the most distinctive call which heralds his readiness to mate.  The male bittern bird sound makes a resonant, deep booming noise. This booming bittern call can be heard far over the reed beds due to its great carrying power. This booming bittern call attracts females and also warns off other males.

Bittern males are very territorial and disputes among males can be very aggressive indeed.  Bitterns also dislike marsh harriers and should one fly near a bittern’s territory a male bittern will come out of its normal hiding place and will aggressively pursue if a marsh harrier bird away.

Bittern Reproduction

Bitterns will make short courtship flights over the reed beds and after mating will make a nest which consists only of some flattened reeds. Male bitterns will mate with several females in one season and plays no further part in rearing young.

Female bitterns lay 4-5 olive-coloured eggs. These female bitterns do all the egg incubation and rearing chicks.   At the end of the breeding season the young will disperse.
Interesting article about a bittern ‘super mum’ here.

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