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.

Little Egret at Litton Reservoir

Despite the efforts of mankind and the climate to eradicate these beautiful creatures from our shores, the Little Egret seems to be making a successful comeback.  We see these medium-sized all-white herons, with their distinctive yellow feet and black legs regularly on the levels. This one was hunting around the Victorian reservoirs at Litton and despite my best efforts, proved difficult to photograph. According to Birds Britannica… “the species is still most common as an autumn and winter visitor to sites in south-west England, like the Exe and Tamar estuaries.” In Britain it was a rare vagrant from its 16th century disappearance until the late twentieth century, and did not breed here. There are now small breeding groups in England and Ireland; the first being recorded on Brownsea Island, Dorset in 1996. Since then it has been moving northwards and was recorded as breeding in Berkshire for the first time in 2007.

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The Little Egret was probably common across much of England in the 15th century, but became extinct through a combination of over-hunting in the late mediaeval period and climate change at the start of the Little Ice Age. The inclusion of 1,000 egrets, among numerous other birds, in the banquet to celebrate the enthronement of George Neville as Archbishop of York at Cawood Castle in 1465 indicates the presence of a sizeable population in northern England at the time, and they are also listed in the coronation feast of King Henry VI in 1429. They had disappeared by the mid 16th century, when William Gowreley, ‘yeoman purveyor to the Kinges mowthe’, “had to send further south” for egrets.

Further declines occurred throughout Europe as the plumes of the Little Egret and other egrets were in demand for decorating hats. They had been used for this purpose since at least the 17th century but in the 19th century it became a major craze and the number of egret skins passing through dealers reached into the millions. Egret farms were set up where the birds could be plucked without being killed but most of the supply was obtained by hunting, which reduced the population of the species to dangerously low levels and stimulated the establishment of Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 1889.

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By the 1950s, the Little Egret had become restricted to southern Europe, and conservation laws protecting the species were introduced. This allowed the population to rebounded strongly; over the next few decades it became increasingly common in western France and later on the north coast. It bred in the Netherlands in 1979 with further breeding from the 1990s onward.