The bittern is stockier than a heron, with buff-brown pale plumage, covered in streaks and speckles.
The second half of its scientific name, Botaurus stellaris, comes from the Latin for “starred” and refers to its speckled plumage.
The male bittern’s distinctive mating call is less secretive. The sound is a very deep and long mournful note which sounds a bit like someone blowing across the top of an empty wine bottle.
It can be heard a mile or more away and each bird sounds slightly different, which means scientists have been able to individually identify different birds.
All about bittern
Hidden in dense reedbeds, the bittern has a reputation for being one of Britain’s most secretive birds.
Part of the heron and stork family, the bittern is an expert at camouflage. Until it blinks, you might be looking straight at one and not know it’s there.
It treads haltingly through the reeds, placing one foot carefully before the other.
It can stick its neck and head straight up vertically, freezing in this position for over half an hour.
As a result of extensive hunting, egg collection and wetland drainage, bitterns became extinct as a breeding bird in the UK in the 19th century.
Bittern are difficult to find – although you might be lucky to hear their haunting call in the spring.
There is a small breeding population in the UK (about 200 pairs), but winter is generally the best time to see them. Wetland areas with large reedbeds are usually good spots.
In 1997 there were just 11 males bittern left but, since then, they’ve been brought back from the brink of extinction thanks to the hard work of conservation organisations.
They are now on the amber list for conservation status. Their reedbed habitat remains under ever greater threat with increased risk of flooding from sea-level rises.
Did you know?
Bittern used to be considered a bit of a delicacy: there’s records from the 15th century of more than 200 being eaten in one celebratory meal.