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Bittern

Conservationists celebrate “booming brilliant” year for UK’s loudest bird

9/4/2024

Bitterns – a secretive bird previously threatened with extinction as a breeding species in the UK – have had another brilliant breeding season, with 234 booming males counted in 2023, according to new survey results from the RSPB and Natural England. The newly released annual Bittern monitoring project figures are up 24% on the number of booming bitterns recorded just 5 years ago, marking the significant conservation progress that has been made in the species' recovery.


The camouflaged species is an elusive resident of reedbeds across England and Wales and makes a far-carrying “booming” sound when the males are looking to attract a mate. As the loudest bird in the UK, their remarkable boom can be heard up to three miles away in spring, and so survey volunteers listen out for and record this in an effort to build a national picture of how the birds are faring.


Having previously become extinct as a breeding species in the UK in the 1870s, due to hunting for food and the draining of their wetland habitats for agriculture, the recovery of the species to the numbers seen today has been long-awaited. In fact, bitterns returned to Norfolk in 1900 but suffered another drop in numbers to just 11 remaining booming males nationally by 1997, meaning the prospect of a second national extinction was a real threat to these birds just a short time ago.


Thankfully, the survey results released today spell a very different picture, thanks to dedicated RSPB-led research and conservation measures aimed at bringing bitterns back from the edge of extinction. Heard booming from 11 new sites in 2023, the results mark the significant success that conservation efforts have had in aiding the species' recovery.


As a bird dependent on reedbed habitats, bitterns can occasionally be spotted moving among the reeds at the water's edge, seeking out fish, insects, and amphibians to eat. Rejuvenating, managing, and creating these wetland habitats has been vital to the bittern's recent success, including at sites such as RSPB Leighton Moss.

Bittern stepping out of reeds

The Lancashire nature reserve, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, saw an increase in the number of booming bitterns recorded jump from six to nine in 2023 as a result of the long-term rejuvenation of reedbeds and creation of additional habitat specifically managed with the species in mind.


Meanwhile, Great Bells Farm on the Isle of Sheppey – an Environment Agency project managed in partnership with the RSPB – also had its first booming bittern recorded, adding to the number of RSPB nature reserves that support the amber listed species. In fact, over half of the UK's bittern population can now be found on RSPB reserves, with some managed predominantly for their reedbeds to attract rare wetland birds such as bittern, crane and great white egret.


RSPB senior conservation scientist, Simon Wotton, said: “The success of this species is in no doubt thanks to conservation efforts by many dedicated organisations and landowners, including the volunteers who have helped to monitor bittern populations over the years. It is brilliant to see the hard work of staff and volunteers in managing specialist habitat for bitterns paying off, and with many RSPB nature reserves now acting as a safe haven for this incredible species, spring really is the time to get out and try to hear their famous boom.


“As sea levels continue to rise due to climate change, threatening the loss of valuable reedbed habitat in many coastal areas, these inland breeding sites will act as an all-the-more important refuge for bitterns and other wetland species. Restoring these habitats aren't just important for nature's sake; they are a win-win for climate and people too as wetlands help to reduce downstream flooding risk and lock up carbon from the atmosphere in the face of the nature and climate emergencies.”


Although bitterns are still a rare bird, they were once found in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and there is hope that they will also re-establish themselves there. For now, listen out for the species across England and Wales at a number of RSPB nature reserves including RSPB Leighton Moss, Lancashire; RSPB Old Moor, Yorkshire; RSPB Langford Lowfields, Nottinghamshire; RSPB Ouse Fen, Cambridgeshire; Avalon Marshes, Somerset; and RSPB Cors Ddyga, Anglesey


Monitoring programmes such as the annual bittern survey are essential for effective conservation and could not be carried out without the help of the thousands of volunteers who give their time for nature.


More than 12,000 people volunteer for the RSPB, taking action to make a positive impact for nature and the environment. To find out more about how you can get involved in volunteering with the RSPB to help benefit bitterns and other extraordinary wildlife, visit rspb.org.uk/volunteer.

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