Bittern at Ham Wall

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Ham Wall is part of an internationally important wetland project just west of Glastonbury, on the Somerset Levels. Created from worked-out peat diggings it forms an extraordinarily beautiful habitat of reed beds, wet scrub, wet woodland and open water. It is home to a wide variety of birds, some rare, as well as marsh orchids, dragonflies, otters and water voles.

One of the rarest of the water birds and evidence of the success of the wetlands project is the Bittern. A member of the heron family, it is shy, secretive and difficult to see even when it hunts for fish along the waters edge with its pale buff brown plumage blending with the reeds behind. The Bittern was on the edge of extinction in the 1990s with a population of just 11 birds. The RSPB estimate the current population to be in the region of 100 birds so it is hardly out of danger. But projects like Ham Wall, Westhay, Lakenheath and their like are making a major contribution to the Bittern’s recovery.

Like so many of our most extraordinary birds it was once common across the UK and like many other birds that are now rare, or extinct, its numbers began to fall in the middle ages when it was hunted for the table; it was considered a delicacy at Tudor banquets. In the 18th and 19th centuries a rise in the popularity of taxidermy combined with the draining of England’s wetlands devastated the surviving population until in 1886 the Bittern had disappeared from Britain.

The 20th century saw the return of a small population which amounted to 60 birds by the 1950s. But by 1997 pollution had destroyed the habitats and the population crashed, again.

These are, hopefully, more enlightened times and the RSPB, with the assistance of European funding, has created a research programme that has revealed just how delicate the relationship between reed bed conditions and Bittern numbers are. Bitterns prefer wet reed beds, where they can fish easily without being seen. As water levels rise and fall over the seasons, large open wetlands allow mud to build up in small areas drying out the reed bed whilst new wet areas form as water channels change. This way the Bittern always has hunting and nesting areas. In closed wetland reserves there is little opportunity for this natural process to occur, so the RSPB along with the Somerset Wildlife Trust and Natural England are managing their sites so that they mimic the natural ebb and flow of a wild wetland.

Bitterns are polygamous, with one male having several females dotted through the reed beds and it is the male’s remarkable foghorn-like booming call as he declares dominion over his territory that makes this plump little heron such an iconic wetland species.

We were photographing a Great White Egret when this little chap appeared briefly. I had only enough time to swing the camera around and refocus. I was almost too excited to remember to press the shutter. Hopefully next time I will be more prepared and will be able to record more of this remarkable birds behaviour.