Little Bittern

Ixobrychus minutus

33-38cm

Appearance

This is the smallest heron found in the region. The sexes differ slightly, though they both have a sharp, narrow bill. Males are mostly black, but they have orange-tinged white sections on the wing coverts and breast, and the head is greyish. When flying, the light section on the upperparts of the wings is revealed, and the big feet trail past the tail. The pattern of females is similar, though they're browner, the markings less obvious, and their breasts are streaked brown to aid camouflage. Juveniles are similar to females but the streaks are more pronounced.

Habitat

Abundant reed vegetation with both still and flowing water is the ideal habitat. The Little Bittern is also found in shrub cover beside canals or rivers.

Character

A timid bird that often flies low and lands with agility. It moves nimbly through reeds to hunt, sometimes grabbing them with its toes for balance, and when resting, it tucks its head in so it merges with its body. Can wait patiently for prey to move within striking distance for long periods of time.

Food

Diet includes amphibians, a variety of freshwater fish (small dace, perch, pike and gudgeon), insects, and small mammals and invertebrates.

Breeding

In Europe this bird breeds in the southern and central parts of the mainland, then moves to Africa for the winter. The female lays 5-6 eggs which she incubates for up to 21 days. Male and female regurgitate food for the young, which develop quickly and leave the nest after 18 days. Young are able to fly at approximately 30 days old.

Population

Less than 250 Little Bitterns have been recorded in Britain since 1958. Since 2010, a few birds have used the reedbeds in Somerset to nest.

Observation Tips

Very difficult to observe, particularly since many of the birds that end up in Britain and Ireland have simply lost their way after leaving Africa for the winter. Best viewed when flying in spring.

Voice

Males utter a barking sound in spring, usually at dawn or dusk, and the call may be repeated many times in quick succession. Adults moving towards young may use a gentle 'quer, quer', while young birds utter 'krarr – krarr'.
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