The Eurasian Bittern { Birds of Europe}

Eurasian Bittern

Taken at Minsmere RSPB bird reserve originally appeared on Fkickr.
Taken at Minsmere RSPB bird reserve originally appeared on Fkickr. | Source

Introduction

Bitterns belong to the Ardeidae {Heron} family of birds within the order known as the Ciconiiformes. This species has been given the generic name of Botaurus from Latin Bos=oxen+ taurus=bull alluding to the males booming call. The specific name of stellaris {starry] alludes to the markings on the plumage.

In the UK the Bittern is placed on the Red list of conservation concern due to historical population declines. As a consequence of this Red status a species action plan {SAP} has been formulated and is currently being implemented on their behalf,in an attempt to halt the decline and eventually to reverse it. There are an estimated 80-100 males during the summer months in the UK. The winter population is about 600 individuals { 2009-2010}.

The first breeding record of this species was in Norfolk 1911 after being declared extinct in 1868. Source the BTO.

In Europe most populations are classed as depleted with an estimated population of between 21,000 and 29,000 pairs in summer. { there is also a European Action Plan for this species.}

The European population varies greatly from country to country for example Austria is between 11-130 breeding pairs. Belgium 12-20 breeding pairs. Croatia 60-100 breeding pairs,France 270-317 breeding pairs, Germany 360-620 breeding pairs,Spain 0-50 breeding pairs and Ukraine 10,000-15,000 breeding pairs. Source Birdlife.

The Gaelic name for the bird is Corra-ghrain the Welsh Aderyn y Bwn and the Irish Bonnan. Here we look at this fascinating species its life style and breeding habits along with notes and observations from past ornithologists and other eminent writers, As always we commence with a description of the species under review.

Bittern and habitat

Source

American bittern

Courtesy of the USFWS
Courtesy of the USFWS

Description of the Eurasian Bittern

Famous for its booming call of the male,which carries over a long distance,each sounding slightly different allowing scientists to identify individual birds.

They are about 75 cm long and the the male weighs 1.5 kg and the female 1 kg. This species has a neck which is shorter and thicker than those of the heron, the middle toe and the claw are both very long,and together are far longer than the next higher segment of the limb. There is an erectile crest and on the neck there is a large ruff which may be expanded at will.There are no dorsal plumes as in the heron.

Both sexes have very similar plumage .The upper surface is of a general ochreous colour,or a yellow buff,each feather irregularly vermiculated and barred with brown and black,and with a center streak of brownish black. The crown and nape are dark brown, the back and scapulars black,margined with a yellowish ochre.The lower back,down to the tail a tawny buff,mottled and barred with black.The wing feathers are reddish brown,barred with black,but the coverts are slate grey,also barred and mottled with dark brown.

Theyebrows,sides of the face and the sides of the neck are tawny buff.The throat is creamy white,with a central brown streak,rest of the neck,the ruff and the remainder of the under surface a whitish cream colour,or tinged with a yellowish hue., The feathers each with a broad central streak of blackish brown uniting into a broad longitudinal lines radiating from the throat along the under side of the bird.

The bill,bare skin about the face legs and feet a greenish yellow colour. The middle claw of the foot being toothed like a comb. The upper mandible of the bill is dark horn coloured towards the tip. The iris is yellow.

In America the genus is represented by Botaurus lentiginosus,which is a very similar bird but slightly smaller.

Fantastic video Courtesy of Philip Parsons Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetland Trust England

General information and historical observations of its decline in England.

The Bittern, has, undoubtedly, higher claims to be included in the list of British birds,than any other of the Heron family ,with the exception of the Grey heron Ardea cinerea*,for it was in former times a resident and regular breeder in England. Its favourite nesting grounds were the fen lands of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk,and,in the latter it is said to have bred in the year 1834,while in Hertfordshire there is on record of a nest in 1855.

One of the main reasons for the birds premature extinction in 1868 was the rapid advance of the plough during the late 1700's and through the 1800's. Fens and marshy places and their associated reed beds were drained and removed for the sake of cultivation of that land. Some birds started visiting these islands in more secluded areas at irregular intervals especially during the winter. At that period of our history Mr. W.H. Hudson made these observations--

" It is however, a noteworthy fact,that,whereas other species that have been driven out, such as the Great Bustard,Spoonbill,Avocet,Black tern and several more,appear now only as rare occasional visitors to our country, the Bittern comes back to us annually,as if ever seeking to recover its lost footing in our island. And that he would recover it, and breed again in suitable places as in former times is not to be doubted, if only human inhabitants would allow it. But unhappily this bird,like the Ruff,Hoopee,and Kingfisher, when stuffed and in a glass case, is looked upon as an attractive ornament by persons of a low order of intelligence and vulgare tastes"

In many parts of Europe also, where it was once very common and nested,had become a very rare visitor by the late 1800's from the causes that had driven it out of England. Swaysland 'Familiar Wild Birds' 1883,also makes these observations on the subject of the birds' continuing scarcity " this very handsome and stately bird,once comparatively common in our country is now but seldom seen" he goes on to give the reasons already mentioned for its scarcity and adds, " Whatever,the reason,it is much to be feared that the Bittern must be reckoned among the list of those British Birds that are slowly but surely disappearing from the country.Even in those localities where specimens are found,its presence can not be counted on with any degree of certainty,sometimes being seen with some amount of frequency at other times disappearing for several seasons in succession"

Coward 'Birds of Cheshire'1900,still confirms the bleak views on the Bittern--" Until early in the present century {1800's} the Bittern probably nested regularly in the reed beds fringing the meres lying between Northwhich and Macclesfield { north west England},for we have been told by men of advanced years that their parents were well acquainted with their booming notes.But in Cheshire as elsewhere the Bittern is now only known as a winter visitor, being occasionally shot in various places of the lowlands.

The first breeding record of the Bittern in England after their demise was recorded in Norfolk in 1911,and they have very so slowly but surely gained a foothold with an estimated 80-100 breeding pairs now present during the summer months in the UK.Thank to protection from the law and the Herculean efforts by conservationists and wildlife organisations. { see Nest and eggs below}

According to some authorities the flesh of the Bittern was once held in high esteem for the table.It was said to be equal to that of the Heron,however,by the mid 1800,s the taste of people had changed and it was no longer thought of in that estimation.

* See my hub Grey Heron { birds of Europe}

Illustration from the 1800's

Familiar Wild Birds {Swayland 1883}
Familiar Wild Birds {Swayland 1883}

Habits of the Bittern

In Wales the Bittern was referred to as Aderyn y Bwn " The bird with the hollow cry" and also Bwmp y gors " boom of the marsh". In many parts of England it went by the name of 'Bogbumper' and 'Butter bump' both related to an interpretation of its call. the call of this shy solitary bird,floating out on a still evening from its haunts in dismal swamps was long held in superstitious dread. In many places it was believed to portend the death of the hearer,or of some of his near relatives or dear friends. For centuries the Bitten's presence was regarded as an emblem of desolation- " the Cormorant and the Bittern,shall lodge in the upper lintels of it,their voice shall sing in the windows;desolation shall be in the thresholds"

In these more enlightened times the boom which heralds the start of the breeding season,can now be identified by scientists,to which individual it belongs. The males breathe in great volumes of air which is released with some pressure to materialize as the familiar boom. It is a bird of nocturnal activity. They are capable of changing their appearance by using a substance known as 'powder down'

When the bird is compelled to flight,its movements like those of the Heron,are heavy and slow.It seldom flies to any distance, but drops in the first convenient place of concealment. However, its mode of flight is quite different to that of the Heron in the respect of how the bird holds its neck. The heron holds its neck close to the body when in flight in an S shape,whereas the Bittern holds its neck straight out when in flight.

The food of this bird consists of any small animal,fish or reptile that it happens across,fresh water fish,frogs and lizards are commonly taken. Like many birds of a similar kind it does not appear to exercise any fastidious scruples about its food and there are records of a water rail and the bones of a quite large pike being found in their stomachs.

Their large feet help them to walk among the stems of the reeds with amazing dexterity while searching for prey or to avoid predators.

Illustration

Gould  { birds of Europe}
Gould { birds of Europe}

Nest eggs and young.

In the breeding season , the male Bittern's booming call is uttered with its neck and the beak pointing upwards it is a remarkable sound. generall ybut not exclusively so,it is heard in the gloaming,the night or early morning from the birds hiding place among the reeds. the call has been likened o many different sounds and noises,among the many,to the sound of a drum by Sir Walter Scot,in the 'Ladyof the Lake' where the following lines occur.

" And the bittern sounds his drum,and by crabbe,to the bellowing bull"}- " What time the seabirds to the marsh would come,

And the loud bittern from his bullrush home

Gave, from the salt-ostel side,his bellowing boom"

Once the mating stage is completed the task of nest building will commence.It is usually located on the mud in the deepest concealment of the reeds,and is constructed of dry reeds and the foliage of flag and rush.

The eggs which number 5-6 are somewhat glossy of a bluish grey colour. they are incubated for 25-26 days by the female,after which the young chicks break into the world,covered with long,rather,loose,rusty yellow hair-like down, which gradually gives place to plumage the same colour as their parents. The young are helpless at first and require to be fed till they are fully fledged,in a further 50-55 days when they become independent.

Here in the UK {Late May early June 2014} we were treated to the new series of the BBC's ' Spring Watch' which was transmitted to our TV,screens.{ Its tenth year} on the air.This year the programme was on screen for four nights a week live from the RSPB Minsmere Reserve Sussex,east Anglia. During the event web cams were placed near the nest of birds and in suitable sites such as near badger setts. The cameras were active twenty four hours a day to keep around the clock monitoring at the chosen localities.

I mention this because, for the first time ever {as I am aware} a camera was paced very close to a bitterns nest, with amazing close up views. By means of this camera we saw amazing things occur. An example of this was the fact that one of the chicks has died,nothing unusual in this fact. But what occurred next was awesome. The female parent ate the dead chick swallowing it whole. It was later regurgitated to the chicks that had survived. Unfortunately the dead chick had not been digested enough and was to large for the chicks to eat. The female re-swallowed the dead chick.Some time later it was once again regurgitated this time it was more digested and the siblings had their meal.

Now this may sound gruesome and horrible but both the female and the surviving chicks had a nutritious meal obtained with minimum effort. And it is well to remember that the dead chick would have began to decompose and as a consequence attracted flies and other parasitic insects that would be harmful to the nest and its occupants.

In this same nest one of the eggs did not hatch. One day when the chicks were much larger and the female had been away from the nest for a while,the chicks became hungry and ate the unhatched egg. Again a meal which was obtained with minimum effort.

Bitterns have excellent camouflage

originally  posted on Flickr ,uploaded by  Amada44
originally posted on Flickr ,uploaded by Amada44 | Source

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7 comments

D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 2 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

aviannovice,

Hello Deb, you must have been pleased to capture that shot,here in the UK that would be a rare shot indeed. Best wishes to you.


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 2 years ago from Stillwater, OK

Indeed, a gorgeous bird. I had seen one of the bitterns while I was in TX and got a picture of one in flight.


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 2 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

Ann1Az2,

Thank you for your visit. They are in the same family as the herons and the American bittern is very similar. to the Eurasian bittern. Your kind comments and vote up are really appreciated. Best wishes to you.


Ann1Az2 profile image

Ann1Az2 2 years ago from Orange, Texas

The European Bittern reminds me of our Blue Heron, only a different color, of course. They are beautiful birds and I'm glad something is being done for their well-being. I enjoyed your hub. Voted up.


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 2 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

VirginiaLynne,

Hi, Thank you for your kind comments,they are beautiful and somewhat mysterious birds. Best wishes to you.

DDE,

Hi Devika, I am glad that I have introduced you to another of our feathered friends. Thank you too, for your kind comments and loyal following both of which are appreciated. Thank you also for the vote up. Best wishes to you.


DDE profile image

DDE 2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

I have not seen this bird and you always surprise me with unique hub. A very different nature bird with such a great camouflage. Voted up!


VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 2 years ago from United States

bnce again a very informative Hub. I've seen the American Bittern and very much enjoyed watching this facinating and beautiful bird.

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