Bittern (Botaurus stellaris): Silent stalker of the reedbeds.
"WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR MATE?" "A bittern," I replied. "Mmm…I've never seen one here before, not from this hide." He continued, "You need to be over there, amongst the reed bed, that's where they're seen most often." I thanked him for the advice he gave so freely on that grey February evening, packed away my equipment and headed for the warmth of a hot flask of cocoa stashed away in my vehicle. One week later I returned to the hide in the reed beds. Sure enough, after three days of intense observation, having twitched at every ripple made in the reedy reflections on the edges of the mill pond flat pool, I watched a bittern stroll calmly past the front of the hide, 5-meters away from me, the feathers on it back still veiled in a thin covering of the early morning frost. I have never been so relieved to receive such astute local knowledge, for I had been waiting in the wrong place for nearly three months prior to its communication.
Had I been in the same location 100-years earlier, I would have had an even longer wait. Bitterns as a breeding species in Britain were last recorded in Norfolk in 1868, and were not known to have returned again until a nest was found on Sutton Fen in 1911. During the interim years, birds from the continent made occasional appearances, but none were believed to have settled. The Norfolk Broads is once again a stronghold for these skulking creatures, members of the heron family Ardeinae -- sub-family Botaurinae, of which there are four distinct species. The birds that we are familiar with in Norfolk may be encountered as far a field as Asia and Southern Africa, where distinct sub-species have taken advantage of habitat niches.
Dwelling in the forever-vertical world of rustling reeds and sedge beds, bitterns are rarely seen other than when they reluctantly take to the air, often accompanied by a disgruntled sounding 'k-waagh' on take-off, as if rudely disturbed from a pleasant dream. Flying low over the golden phragmites with short strokes of curved wings, in low light it is often said they can resemble a large, ginger coloured owl, such is their disposition to hold their head and neck into their chest whilst alight. Surprisingly, for a bird that looks the anathema of an athlete, the bittern can show great agility; its oversized olive-green feet are capable of grasping numerous reed stems in each foot, enabling the bird to haul itself up the erect vegetation -- as a commando would climb a rope -- for a better view of its surroundings. Should its nemesis, the marsh harrier, glide over a nest containing the bittern's young, the heron will launch from its stooped posture and pursue the hawk with a murderous vigour.
Once grounded, the bittern blends beautifully into the swaying reeds, with their streaked tawny and black plumage rendering them almost invisible. However, if the birds feel that their cover is blown, they will freeze, but not before assuming the 'bitterning posture'. Standing erect with heads pointing skyward and neck out-stretched, they become part of the vegetation, the baggy throat plumes taking-on a mimetic quality. It is now that the extraordinary positioning of the bittern's amber coloured eyes becomes apparent. Forward facing to provide superb bi-focal vision, the creature's appearance becomes boss-eyed, even slightly comical.
It is best to wait until spring is in full swing, choosing a still, calm morning before exploring a suitable fen to find these birds. R.S.P.B. Strumpshaw Fen or N.W.T. Hickling Broad is a good place to start. Once there, do nothing, just listen. You will know you're in the right place. A low, resonating sound will reverberate across the fen -- as if blowing into an empty bottle top -- hanging on the mist as it is repeated at 2 - 3 second intervals. You may at first think a lowing cow is on the loose, but this is the cock bird proclaiming his territory. This call, a result of air being vibrated within the bird's oesophagus, can travel for three miles on still air, so you may have some walking to do to get a more intimate experience.
The generic name for the bittern, Botaurus, is derived from the Latin 'boatum tauri'. Curiously it translates as 'the bellowing of a bull!'
During the first light of a cold February morning, an elusive bittern appears and pauses briefly to survey its reed bed home. Signs of a chilly night spent roosting on the marsh are evident in the patches of hoar frost lingering on its feathers.
Bathed in late winter sunshine, a bittern strolls along the edge of a scrape, situated deep amongst the broadland marshes. Vast expanses of reed bed are essential to the bird's existence in Norfolk.
Should its nemesis, the marsh harrier, glide over a nest containing its young, the bittern will launch from its stooped posture and pursue the hawk with a murderous vigour.