Hidden in the Reeds

We are very in lucky in London to have some wonderful sites for wildlife in the heart of the city. One of my very favourites, which if you are a regular blog reader you have probably guessed, is the London Wetland Centre. Converted from four Victorian reservoirs and opened to the public in 2000, the Barnes site today provides a permanent home, or temporary retreat, for countless species you would never expect to encounter in London!

On a Wild Capital programme earlier this week our luck was really in, as we spotted a wetland bird who is a camouflage specialist. Examine this photography carefully and see if you can spot it (it’s not the Lapwing sitting on the island, although that is very nice too!)

Bittern hidden in reeds

Any luck? If you look really carefully into the reeds, just right of centre, you might spot a slightly paler long thin shape. It’s a bittern.

In case you aren’t familiar with the bittern, a streaked brown heron, smaller than the grey heron, here is a clearer image of what you are actually looking at.


By Marek Szczepanek (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Upon first spotting the shape in the reeds I was only 80% convinced that it was a bittern, and not my eyes playing tricks, however a bit of patience proved it to be the case.  At first the bittern was assuming the camouflage posture; standing up straight with its beak pointed towards the sky. In this position all the dark and pale brown streaks in the plumage run upwards parallel with the reeds, allowing the bird to virtually disappear. Yet, as we (and now a hide full of excited watchers) waited, the bird began to move. It looked to the side. The parallel alignment of patterns was broken,  just as though it had been an invisibility spell,  and the shape of the bird appeared.

With a little more patience we were able to watch the bird slowly and carefully move along the edge of the reeds. Visibly more relaxed, the bird’s mind could turn to feeding. Bitterns, like most herons, have broad tastes in food, with fish, amphibians and insects being the staple, but worms, leeches, molluscs, crustaceans, spiders, reptiles, small birds and even some small mammals featuring on the menu. 

The reed like camouflage and the taste for almost every wetland morsel begins to give you an idea of what a superbly adapted bird the bittern is. This brings a question to mind, if the bittern is so good at what it does, why aren’t there more of them? Currently in the UK, we have around 80 breeding males. There are breeding females too, but the counts are done of males because they can easily be accounted for (even if not seen) by their famous booming call. The deep resonating boom of a male bittern can be heard as far as a mile away! I think of this as another tactic for reed bed living; your potential sweetheart can’t see you, so you’d better make your serenade impressive and far reaching! The latin name for a bittern is Botaurus stellaris. The genus part of the name, Botaurus, is derived from the latin boatum tauri which means “the bellowing of a bull”.

In the colder months are resident breeding bitterns are joined by winter migrants, boosting the total number of bitterns to around 600.

At the start of the 19th century, the bittern was a relatively common bird. It was regarded as a delicacy for the dining table and special hunts were organised all round the country; in the fens and broads of eastern England as well as Wales, Ireland and Scotland. After only a few decades the population collapsed as a result of hunting, and also egg collecting and loss of wetland habitat. The last  recorded pair of breeding bitterns was in 1868 in Norfolk.  A period of around 40 years passed where no bitterns were recorded to breed in the UK.

We have been given a second chance with this wonderful bird. Natural recolonisation of bitterns from the Continent has led to the return of a breeding population to some former British haunts. Sadly however, habitat loss continues to be a problem for this wetland specialist.  All animals and birds need a place to live, somewhere which provides food, water, shelter and others of the same species with which to breed.

For me, the London Wetland Centre hits home what a key role humans play in the future of our wildlife.  We humans have an unrivaled ability to modify the environment, which sadly so often proves determinantal to our wildlife. Yet here in the most unlikely of places, an old industrial site within our capital city, our environment changing capability has been used to build habitats from concrete, create diversity from sterility and provide a refuge for a species in need.  

Some words spring to mind;  “If you build it, he will come”.  For the bittern, the London Wetland Centre really is a Field of Dreams.

London Wetland Centre

Read about Sir Peter Scott, founder of the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, and one of my personal heroes.

Information about the London Wetland Centre, plan your visit now, the winter is the best time for bittern and also ducks and geese.

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