Bittern in flight

Banner image: Bittern in flight, Neil Wright

By Anna Charles ǀ Head Ranger

It’s been an exciting time at Millennium Country Park of late, as we’re able to confirm that a bittern (Botaurus stellaris) appears to have bred in the Park.

We originally heard a male ‘booming’ – a distinctive call used by male bitterns to attract a mate - in our reedbed area early this spring. If you visited during this time you may have been lucky enough to hear the call, which is fascinating and sounds like blowing over the top of an empty bottle.

Booming has been recorded in previous years, but this year is the first that a bittern has been noted frequently by birdwatchers over the last few weeks carrying food to a presumed nest, which is evidence of confirmed breeding.

Following discussions I’ve had with Peter Nash, the Bedfordshire County Bird Recorder, this is the very first confirmed record of breeding bitterns in Bedfordshire!

Peter said:

‘I have checked the Club's records and there are no known previous records of breeding Bitterns in Bedfordshire - lots of booming but nothing more than that. So, it is possible, breeding has occurred, but nothing has ever been proven to reach that conclusion. My sources are "The Birds of Bedfordshire" by Paul Trodd and Dave Kramer, published 1991, "The Breeding Birds of Bedfordshire 1988-92" by R A Dazley and P Trodd, published in 1994 and I have also checked the last few County Bird Reports as well as BirdTrack records and there are no breeding records listed’

The bittern is a very secretive bird. It’s part of the heron family and has brown plumage with streaks and bars and a powerful beak. They are dependent on reedbeds and spend much of their time skulking on the waters edge looking for fish, amphibians, and insects.

They were extinct as breeding birds back in the late 19th century due to the drainage of wetlands and hunting, but after being recorded breeding again in 1911 they continued to increase in numbers until the mid-1950s until numbers crashed again. In 1997 there were only 11 booming bitterns within the UK.

This triggered the RSPB to begin a research program to better understand the requirements of the bittern. The increased knowledge gained through research led to improved habitat management by conservation organisations and turned things around for the bittern which has continued to increase in numbers since that time.

When we created Millennium Country Park back in 1999/2000, one of the aims was to create sufficient suitable reedbed to support breeding bitterns. We’ve worked hard to create optimum conditions through management of water levels, removal of scrub and rotational cutting of reeds. We’re delighted our hard work has resulted in breeding, and that we are playing our small part in national conservation efforts for this bird!

Whilst bitterns are a Schedule 1 rare breeding bird in the UK, activity can be safely viewed over the reedbeds from the paths and hides in the Wetlands Nature Reserve - tickets can be bought via Reception in the Forest Centre. If you do visit and are lucky enough to see a bittern, please do keep your distance as they can be easily disturbed. 

Hopefully this is just the start of the establishment of a small population of these birds in our County!

Please do report any sightings to the Visitor Centre and, ideally, log them on BirdTrack (www. so the records can be included within County and National records.

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