Record year for booming bitterns
Britain’s loudest bird has battled extinction not once but twice.
Bitterns completely disappeared from Britain in the 1870s. Although the shy bird with a booming voice made a comeback in the 20th century, bitterns were back at the brink of extinction by 1997 when numbers dropped to just 11 males.
Two EU-funded projects helped revive bittern (a type of heron) numbers once again. This year the RSPB is celebrating the bitterns’ best year since records began, with over 100 male booming bitterns recorded on the charity’s reserves for the first time and almost 200 across the UK.
Despite its claim to fame as Britain’s loudest bird, bitterns are highly secretive. With their well camouflaged, pale, buffy-brown plumage, bitterns spend most of their time hiding in dense stands of reed and are so elusive scientists count them by listening for the males’ distinctive booming call.
Simon Wotton, RSPB Senior Conservation Scientist, said: “Bitterns are one of our most charismatic birds. Their astonishing recovery from the brink of extinction is a real conservation success story and example of what is possible through targeted efforts to restore wildlife habitat.
“It’s a delight to hear their distinctive booming call echoing across the reedbeds every year as more and more bitterns are making new or restored wetlands their home.”
Since 2006, there has been a year-on-year increase in the number of bitterns making their home in Britain. This year numbers reached record levels once more with 198 males recorded at 89 sites. This compares to 188 at 82 sites in 2018.
Although the EU LIFE grants were vital to the bittern bounce back, legal safeguards in place within Special Protection Areas (SPAs) were also crucial to their success.
The number of SPAs has not increased for 20 years, despite plans to designate more SPAs as bitterns arrived in their newly created habitats.
When the RSPB first started regular annual bittern monitoring in 1990, over 90% of booming bitterns were found on SPAs designated for the bird but this year only 23% were recorded on designated SPAs, leaving bittern nests vulnerable to damage and destruction.
The UK has the second lowest percentage of its national territory designated as SPAs of the EU28 member states.
RSPB director for conservation Martin Harper said: “The recovery of the bittern is a great success story. It highlights the importance of nature reserves and protected areas in providing this species a lifeline.
“Equally, we know that dedicated funding from the EU has been instrumental in driving positive action.
“Rhetorical commitments to restore nature in a generation must be backed up with legal targets and adequate resources. That is why it is essential that governments across the UK pass new environment laws to drive nature’s recovery and replace the funding that will be lost if and when the UK leaves the European Union. “
102 booming males were recorded across RSPB sites, up from 92 last year.
Booming was reported from five new sites. Although the number of confirmed booming makes in Somerset dropped from 55 to 48 boomers, record levels were noted in the Fens and North Eastern England,
Bitterns are a secretive bird, very difficult to see, as they move silently through the reeds at the water’s edge, looking for fish. If you keep your eyes peeled you might be lucky to spot one at a number of RSPB nature reserves in Somerset, East Anglia and Yorkshire. To find a reserve close to you, visit www.rspb.org.uk/reserves