By Charlotte Owen
Have you ever seen a bird impersonating a reedbed? Probably not, if they were doing it right. The Bittern is so good at blending in that it’s almost impossible to spot them when they don’t want to be seen. Their feathers are painted in the perfect palette of a winter reedbed, from pale buff to golden brown. The bird’s outline is broken up by a series of darker stripes and bars, expertly mimicking the light and shade of a dense wall of stems. Thanks to this cryptic camouflage, stealth mode is permanently engaged and the secretive bittern can stalk unseen along reed margins, hunting fish, frogs and insects.
But a Bittern can disappear completely when the need arises. Standing upright, it will stretch its neck as tall as possible to lengthen the reed-like plumage on its throat and chest and raise its bill to the sky. The bird vanishes before your very eyes, becoming one with the golden stems that surround it. A bittern can stay like this for an impressively long time, completely motionless on a still day or gently swaying when a breeze stirs the reeds, matching their hypnotic movement.
Despite such efforts to go unseen, the bittern will often give itself away with its unmistakeable call. With such a stealthy approach to life, it seems bizarre that the Bittern is Britain’s loudest bird. They literally go boom – or at least the males do – and on a calm night their booming calls can travel a good three miles. It’s not an explosive noise but more like blowing air over the mouth of a huge empty bottle to create a deep, breathy boom of bass. This is their mating call and bitterns can be surveyed in the spring by counting the number of booming males.
Thankfully, these numbers are now on the rise. Bitterns were driven to extinction in the UK and almost vanished again as recently as 1997, when just 11 booming males remained. By restoring their reedbed habitats, there are now more than 160. The Bittern is back from the brink and only vanishing of its own accord, deep in the rustling reeds.
Bittern can be found in the reedbeds at Filsham Reedbed and Rye Harbour nature reserve thanks to conservation efforts at these sites.