Where to see a bittern

©Jamie Hall

The bittern

In the densest of reedbeds, hidden in the swaying stalks lives one of Britain’s most secretive birds. A master of camouflage, you could be looking right at one and not know it’s there, until it blinks. As spring arrives, the males advertise their presence with a spine-chilling ‘boom’ that can carry for up to three miles. In 1997 there were just 11 males left, but the hard work of UK conservation bodies (with a lot of help from the EU and extra funding) has brought bitterns back from the brink of extinction: in 2017, there were a thrilling 164 males booming from their reedbed homes. 

Once on the verge of extinction in Britain, springtime reedbeds now resonate to the mournful boom of the bittern advertising its comeback

Find a bittern

Pay a visit to one of these exciting wetlands, and enjoy one of the great conservation success stories of recent years. The bittern is still a very rare bird, so to be in with a chance of hearing him boom you'll need to get to one of the large reedbed nature reserves where they nest:

What to look out for

Familiarise yourself with the sound of the boom first so you know what to listen out for. The sound is similar to someone blowing over the mouth of an empty milk bottle. Interestingly, unlike most birds he doesn’t use his ‘syrinx’ or voicebox. Instead, the muscles around his wind pipe (oesophagus) strengthen and expand, turning his gullet into a great echo chamber that eventually makes up a phenomenal one fifth of his total body weight!

Pick a still day, when sounds can carry further, and then settle in to a bird hide and wait. Don’t worry, with the reedbeds alive with singing warblers, squealing water rails, pinging bearded tits and even the chance of a passing otter, we’re sure you won’t get bored!

If you can't get to these places

Even in the right place, you'll need a little luck to hear the bittern's boom.  For a guaranteed ‘boom’, listen to the soundtrack of Westhay Moor on the Somerset Levels at Somerset Wildlife Trust’s YouTube Channel complete with a booming bittern 43 seconds into the recording.

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