Record breaking year for rare and elusive bittern at South Yorkshire reserve

A bittern. Picture by Paul Paddock
A bittern. Picture by Paul Paddock

The RSPB are delighted to announce that they are on course for a record breaking year for the rare and elusive bittern at their Old Moor reserve in the Dearne Valley.

Once extinct in Britain, the elusive bittern has returned in recent years thanks to concerted conservation efforts but there are still just 150 breeding males in the whole of the United Kingdom. This year, two males have been holding territory at Old Moor and careful monitoring has revealed in the past week that there are three active nests in the reedbeds on the reserve. Given their scarcity, these nests have national significance to the population of this rare bird.

The bittern, a member of the heron family, has a buffy-brown plumage designed to camouflage perfectly with its reedbed habitat. It is a difficult bird to see, given its secretive nature. It moves silently through the reeds at the water’s edge looking for fish. Its call, a remarkable far-carrying booming sound can be heard across the reserve during the spring time. The sound is similar to the noise of someone blowing over the top of an empty glass bottle and is the loudest noise of any British bird.

The bittern lives exclusively in reedbeds, this is a scarce habitat as traditionally it is transitional, meaning that over time it changes. The reeds dry out as plant litter builds up. The then reed dies back and scrubland takes over which in time evolves into woodland.

When the team at RSPB Old Moor took over the management of the reserve in 2003, one of their aims was to develop the reedbed habitat in order to attract these rare birds. The reserve team planted reeds and created channels and pools to give the bird the perfect blend of open water and reeds to hide and feed amongst.

Furthermore the RSPB worked with the Environment Agency and Don Rivers Trust to release fish and elvers (baby eels) into the reserve as part of a wider project to restore fish populations on the Dearne and Don river systems. Not only was this good for the fish populations but eels just happen to be a favourite food of the bittern!

Careful management over the past 15 years has paid off and nature has reclaimed this once industrial wasteland. Bitterns first nested in 2010 and have attempted to breed every year since.

Matthew Capper, Site Manager at RSPB Old Moor said: “It is a truly remarkable story. 25 years ago this area was left as a post mining wasteland. To see how, with some help from our incredible team of staff and volunteers, nature has taken over and reclaimed this part of the Dearne Valley is a real success and story of hope for the local area. Who would have thought in 2003 when we took over management of this site we would be celebrating three bittern nests now.”

This year is looking to be a fantastic year for RSPB Old Moor. With three active nests and plenty of food available, could this be a record breaking year for the reserve? Why not see if you can spot one of these rare birds flying over the reeds or hear one of their booming calls by taking a trip out to RSPB Old Moor.