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Bitterns are booming

PUBLISHED: 11:21 03 February 2015 | UPDATED: 11:21 03 February 2015

Bittern Botaurus stellaris, adult, wading in reedb...

Bittern Botaurus stellaris, adult, wading in reedb...

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It might be shy and retiring, but this feathered favourite can certainly make its presence known when it wants to. Aggie Rothon reports on the successful comeback of the bittern at RSPB Minsmere

Great spotted woodpecker Dendrocopus major, adult ...Great spotted woodpecker Dendrocopus major, adult ...

‘If music be the food of love play on’, wrote Shakespeare in Twelfth Night. Valentine’s Day will certainly resound with romantic tunes, but when it comes to Suffolk’s famous bird, the bittern, the ladies of the species will be wooed in a far less tuneful manner.

At this time of year, when these secretive birds gear up for the breeding season, male bitterns can be heard making strange gulping, bellowing noises from the reedbeds. It sounds rather like someone blowing across the top of a milk bottle, and is grandly named ‘booming’ – the male bittern’s way of attracting a mate.

At the start of the season the call sounds meeker and less passionate, but as winter turns to spring the bitterns of RSPB Minsmere’s reedbeds really go for it. Take a walk around the reserve at dawn or dusk and you might well hear a male bittern wooing a female.

Booming appeals not just to female bitterns, but to conservationists too. Shy and well-camouflaged, bitterns are extremely difficult to find, so their population is calculated by the numbers of booming males heard among the reeds.

Each year an army of volunteers, landowners and nature reserve staff spends many hours tracking down the birds while they are booming. In 1997, only 11 booming males were found at seven sites. But in 2014, after a lot of hard work through an EU funded project designed specifically to aid the bittern’s recovery, there were 140 ‘boomers’ across 61 sites.

RSPB Minsmere was the stronghold for this bird for many years. But as conservationists considered the potential effects of climate change – such as loss of Suffolk freshwater coastal wetlands – they realised it would be better if a number of habitats were available for bitterns in areas that were safe from rising sea levels.

This meant spreading suitable bittern habitats across the country, rather than relying on ‘honeypots’ such as Minsmere to ensure the bittern’s future. A second set of funding from EU LIFE-Nature was secured, which from 2002 to 2006 enabled the RSPB and others to create more than 300 hectares of new reedbed – an area the size of the City of London.

In addition, 350 hectares of reedbed were restored, and nearly 40 km of ditches were restored or created across 19 sites. Now if a particular bittern population is struggling, there will always be birds from other locations to boost their numbers.

Bitterns, were once extinct in the UK, but the birds have had a record breeding season this year and the highest number of individuals has been recorded since the 1800s. Government figures recently showed many threatened species are still declining, but the bittern’s story demonstrates it is possible to bring back species from the brink.

RSPB Minsmere has just had its most successful year in terms of the number of bittern chicks fledging from nests. The reserve had 11 booming males, while the highest number of bitterns was recorded at the RSPB’s Ham Wall inland marsh habitat in Somerset, where 20 birds were booming from the reeds. These figures prove that these birds, once localised in Suffolk, need help across the country to ensure their continued success.

RSPB Minsmere also played host to BBC’s Springwatch in 2014, and if you want to hear or even spot one of the stars of the show this spring, visit the reserve on a quiet morning. Listen carefully and you might hear that unmistakeable ‘milk bottle’ sound. Look closely and you may see a bittern standing to attention at the edge of the reedbed waiting for a fish to swim silently into view.

Bitterns are elusive birds, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t find one right away – there is plenty more at Minsmere to keep you entertained. Overwintering ducks begin to leave in March and the first wading birds will be passing through on their way north for the breeding season. Avocets and Mediterranean gulls will be returning to breed among the black-headed gull colony out on the islands, followed in mid April by the first common terns.

Above the reedbeds, look for the dramatic ‘sky dancing’ display of marsh harriers. In the woods, listen for the beautiful songs of nightingales and warblers, or the drumming of great spotted woodpeckers.

Sand martins will be returning to nest outside the café and the first dragonflies will be on the wing in late April.

Look for Dartford warblers and woodlarks on the heath, or a basking adder, fresh from hibernation.

So while the bitterns may be the stars of the show as they boom through February, keep your eyes peeled for plenty of other wild spectacles at Minsmere.

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