Bittern

Botaurus stellaris

70-80cm

Appearance

A compact bird that appears robust. The plumage is mostly golden-brownish, detailed with darker bars and streaking. The crown is black as is the moustache area, the legs are long, and the bill is narrow and pointed. Juvenile bird resembles adult but the cap and moustache area are brown.

Habitat

Tends towards thick reeds beside swamps and marshes, and prefers to feed in shallow water. East Anglia and Lancashire hold the primary habitats in the region in summer, but birds are more widespread in the winter, particularly in south-east England.

Character

A timid bird with very good camouflage. It holds the stems of reeds in its toes in order to move around; its feet and legs are powerful. Usually huddled over, when the Bittern is alarmed, it extends its neck and looks to the sky. When flying, its wings are wide with rounded tips, and though it is a slow flier, it can get to surprising heights.

Food

Diet consists of fish (particularly rudd and eels), and it also eats amphibians, insects, and mammals including water voles and small birds.

Breeding

Males are territorial from late winter. He uses his booming call to attract females, usually calling from a particular location that he frequents. He doesn't have much to do with the rearing of young after mating. Female lays 4-6 eggs and she incubates them for 25 days. She feeds them for 7 weeks and around this time, they depart the nest to spend autumn in other reedbeds.

Population

Few pairs breed in the region. Numbers are boosted in winter by migrants from northern and eastern Europe; 600 individuals may be present at this time.

Observation Tips

Thrives in the cover of reed vegetation, so observation is usually achieved when these birds take to the air. There are reedbed reserves in Norfolk, Suffolk and Lancashire where Bitterns are most common in the breeding season. Winter viewing may be possible in Hertfordshire.

Voice

The male makes a characteristic booming sound when he is territorial (from January to April); he is particularly vocal at dusk. The noise travels far and can be compared to the sound of blowing across the opening of a glass bottle.
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