Conservationists are celebrating an excellent year for the bittern in the UK, with more than 100 breeding males recorded this year, compared with only 11 in 1997. A relative of the grey heron, the bittern is best known for its distinctive booming call, which researchers have been using to track this elusive bird.
A precarious past
The bittern was classified as extinct in the UK at the end of the 19th century, due to its popularity as a medieval dish and the loss of its reedbed habitat. In spite of this, the species managed to re-establish itself in the UK in 1911 and even increase in number until the 1950s. This was followed by a second decline, until a low in 1997 prompted intensive conservation efforts by the RSPB and Natural England.
Conservation director for the RSPB, Martin Harper, said, “To lose the bittern once in Britain was regrettable, but to have lost it twice would have been unforgivable.”
Research into the species, combined with habitat restoration and creation since the 1990s, has played an important role in the bittern’s recovery. These improvements are not only benefitting the bittern, but also the other species associated with wetlands, including humans. It also provides encouraging evidence that wetland habitats can be successfully restored.
Booming once more
The bittern can be a difficult bird to survey due to its secretive habit of creeping around in dense reed beds. However, researchers have been able to track the breeding males thanks to their booming calls, which can be heard from several kilometres away.
The males create this distinctive call by gulping down air into the gullet, then releasing it. The best places to hear the bittern in the UK now include Norfolk, the Somerset Levels and Suffolk.
Despite this increase in its population, the future for the bittern in the UK is still not completely certain, with the species still facing potential threats such as the destruction of its freshwater habitat by rising sea levels.
Rebecca Moran, ARKive Species Text Author