The boom of the bittern

The boom of the bittern


Posted 26th Feb 2018


The springtime reedbeds are set to resonate with the mournful boom of the bittern

Once on the verge of extinction in Britain, the bittern is one of our most secretive birds. Found in the densest of reedbeds, they hide amongst our swaying reeds, feeding on a diet of eels.

Extremely well camouflaged by the reeds, you could be looking right at one but not be aware it's there until it suddenly blinks.

By the time spring arrives, it will be time for the males to announce their presence, which they do with one of the loudest and most far-reaching calls of any of our birds.

Unlike many birds, he will not use his 'syrinx' or voicebox - instead, the muscles around his oesophagus will strengthen and expand, eventually accounting for a phenomenal one fifth of his total body weight, and subsequently turning his gullet into a great echo chamber. As he breathes out, the spine-chilling 'boom' will sound like someone is blowing over an empty milk bottle and can carry for up to three miles.

As recently as 1997, there were only 11 males left in the UK. Yet the hard work of conservation bodies across the country (with help coming from EU legislation and extra funding) has paid off, with heart-warming results. By 2015, there were 150 males who were booming from their reedbed homes - pay one a visit to these exciting wetlands and enjoy what has proved to be one of the great conservation success stories in recent years.

How to do it

The bittern is a very rare bird, so to have a chance of hearing him boom, you will need to get to one of the larger reedbed nature reserves where they nest. Listen to the sound of the boom first, so you know what to listen out for - then pick a still day, when the sound can carry further. Then, settle into a bird hide and wait - however, don't worry. With the reedbeds alive with singing warblers, squealing water rails, pinged bearded tits and even the chance of a passing otter, you won't get bored.

Even in the right place, you need luck to be able to hear a bittern boom.

Special spots

Cambridgeshire, The Great Fen

Hertfordshire, Amwell

Lincolnshire, Far Ings

Norfolk, Cley Marshes

Norfolk, Hickling Broad

Nottinghamshire, Attenborough

Somerset, Westhay Moor

Sussex, Rye Harbour

Yorkshire, Potteric Carr

Text and information courtesy of The Wildlife Trusts / image courtesy of © Tim Stenton





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