NATURE NOTES - The booming bittern

THERE is definitely a hint of spring in the air!

Dawn is getting earlier every day and the birds by the cottage are responding well and starting to practice their songs. As expected the main songsters at the moment are blackbird, song thrush and robin but it wont be that long before the full choir is in song.

Some reedbed work that Natural England has funded over at Pennington Flash is already paying dividends in that the overwintering bitterns that have used the reedbed for a number of years seemed to have increased. Usually a single bird is glimpsed occasionally but now two birds have been seen on a few occasions. It would be too much to hope for that these two could be a pair and settle down here and breed.

The bittern is a secretive bird and its subtle colouring makes it hard to spot in its wetland surroundings – although its mating call, which can be heard several miles away, testifies to its presence. It was once common across the UK, but numbers began to fall in the Middle Ages – the bird was considered a delicacy and was eaten at banquets up to Tudor times.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the bird became a popular target for taxidermists. The drainage of England’s wetlands devastated the surviving population and by 1886 the bird had disappeared from Britain. Early in the 20th century the population slowly began to return and by the 1950s there were 60 bitterns in the UK, but water pollution then destroyed its habitat. By 1997, the bird’s numbers had fallen back to 11.

The RSPB decided to lead the fight in increasing the bittern’s habitat and hopefully then increasing its breeding population numbers – some of the work undertaken at Wigan Flashes was in partnership with the RSPB. The bittern has been classified by the EU as a “priority species”. With European funding, the RSPB lowered reed beds at several of their reserves and pumped out mud, creating improved habitats. A new site was set up at Lakenheath in Suffolk. Today there are at least 100 bitterns, most of them in southern England. However, climate change means some habitats are vulnerable to rising sea levels, particularly the important RSPB site at Minsmere in Suffolk, where tides could flood freshwater areas with salt water, ruining them for the bittern. Droughts also endanger the species by drying out wetlands. The RSPB is now working to create new inland nesting areas. “We no longer have a landscape where natural processes can take place on a large scale, so conservationists must work within the areas that are available,” said Madge. “Creating bigger wetlands not only houses a larger diversity of species but also buffers against climate change. If the RSPB’s legacy of habitat creation and preservation is maintained, the unique and dynamic bittern’s boom can continue to sound out across our wetlands.”

Hopefully the work in the reedbed at Pennington will play its part in this national multi agency drive for the bittern.