Bitterns: How rare bird recently on the verge of extinction is making a comeback in Yorkshire

Not long ago they were on the verge of extinction - but one of Britain’s iconic birds is back in numbers not seen in years.

Given that in 1997, only 11 male bitterns were recorded in the UK, it is a heartwarming turn-around which shows the power of joined-up thinking, according to the RSPB’s Old Moor manager Julian Mayston.

Later on in the year, the male birds will make their presence felt making rumbling booms over more than 100 decibels in volume to attract a mate.

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But even in the depths of the winter, they have been making an appearance to the delight of wildlife enthusiasts.

Bitterns, known for their distinctive calls, are making a comeback across the North. (Credit: Dave Dennis)

Dave Dennis, from Airmyn, photographed the well-camouflaged bird on a visit to North Cave Wetlands, as it emerged from the reedbeds where it feeds and sleeps.

He had previously waited for hours without seeing the elusive bird appear, and said: “It’s very hard usually (to see one). It’s usually deep in the reeds, but this particular day it was walking on the edge of the reedbeds, and seemed quite relaxed.”

Bitterns are often seen looking up into the air for threats – including from marsh harriers.

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Behind the scenes at Fairburn Ings Nature Reserve as birds go in search of food ...
The well-camouflaged birds have been spotted by David Dennis at North Cave Wetlands (Credit: Dave Dennis)

Mr Dennis thinks the bird he spotted may be a youngster, driven away from another location by its parents and does not expect it to stay long as it will want to find a mate.

It may well go off following the rivers in Yorkshire from the air, which act as highways for the birds. In May when it makes its distinctive foghorn blasts, one of the best places to hear the bittern is at Old Moor near Barnsley. Back in the 1950s, the Dearne Valley was considered the most polluted landscape in Europe.

The reedbeds now occupy a third of the 200-hectare site and up to three or four bitterns – including an easily identifiable female with missing primary feathers and a damaged toe – are seen there every year.

Mr Mayston said their revival was due to rivers getting cleaner and conservation work by organisations including the RSPB. The first breeding bittern was reported at Blacktoft Sands in 2001.

Dave Dennis

Old Moor was acquired from Barnsley Council two years later, with reed rhizomes taken from Blacktoft Sands, along with a truckload of eels and fish like rudd – food for bitterns.

“Old Moor was always considered a prime area to bring back bitterns,” said Mr Mayston.

Bitterns bred there for the first time in 2008. Reedbeds are a threatened habitat and restoring them supports a host of wildlife, from dragonflies to water rail and bearded tits.

All this in an area which was once a major railway siding distributing coal, nicknamed Hell’s Kitchen for the fires, soot and smoke that belched out.

Mr Mayston said: “There are now bitterns across the North from Leighton Moss near Morecambe to the Humber. It’s not just the bittern, it has regenerated habitat and other species choose to migrate here. A story like this needs to be celebrated.”

Loss of habitat, hunting and slow breeding growth caused the bird’s rapid decline, with the species becoming extinct in the UK at the end of the 19th century and then teetering on the brink again later in the 20th century.

Their plight and specific needs – managed reedbeds with easy access to fish – kept it on the UK’s red list for many years.