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Wednesday, 16 January, 2002, 15:23 GMT
Bittern boom for birdwatching
John Bruce (left), Tony Leppard and Phil Carter in the Wetland Centre hide
Bitterns have mythical status among birdwatchers

Britain's birdwatching community is highly excited about recent sightings of one of the rarest birds on these shores. BBC News Online's Tom Geoghegan finds out what the fuss is about.

The hush was broken as the birdwatchers eagerly scrambled for position, so I strained my eyes frantically along the banks.

But the sudden flurry was not prompted by a sighting of the rare bittern but by a woman vacating the coveted seat with the best vantage point.

During one hour's watch at the London Wetland Centre, the nearest I got to seeing one of Britain's rarest birds was on video footage recorded at the weekend by one seasoned 'twitcher'.

Even gazing at the recording, the bird was difficult to spot, so I held out little hope of beginner's luck and trumping the experienced birdwatchers around me.
A bittern stands erect among the reeds if it senses danger
The bittern is very shy

Some of them gave my small digital camera a sympathetic glance as they aimed their long lenses onto the reedbeds.

Business has been booming at the centre in Barnes since the sightings of three bitterns last Friday sent a ripple of excitement around this highly specialised community.

Jan Wilczur, a 45-year-old bird illustrator who lives nearby, rushed straight down on the same day and ended a 20-year wait to see a bittern among these reservoirs.

Home comforts

Fifteen other birdwatchers, an estimated seven-fold increase on usual attendances, had the same idea on Wednesday morning and stared intently at the reedbeds from the elevated wooden hide.

Their relative comfort under one roof was at odds with the traditional image of trudging around in marshes with a pair of binoculars.

Although the tweed and Barbour was heavily in evidence, this was a much more sophisticated operation, with television monitors keeping a close eye for potential sightings and even a cafe.

The bitterns prove that the habitat is working and it proves you can play God and create a habitat that functions just like a real one

Martin Senior
London Wetland Centre

As Tony Leppard, 65, from Twickenham, said: "You can come here for a social visit.

"Some people come for a cup of coffee and a cake."

Maybe the home comforts are an attempt to broaden the hobby's appeal, without alienating birdwatching purists.

Rewards

Martin Senior, marketing manager at the Wetland Centre, told BBC News Online: "We try to cater for all needs so it is not elitist.

"So we try to provide what people expect from a modern day attraction."

He added: "A lot of people see birdwatching as socially unacceptable and we are trying to get round that.

Bittern facts
Only 20-25 now living in UK
Bitterns can mimic reeds and even sway in the wind
The male 'boom' can be heard five km away

"Hopefully people realise that a lot of normal people do this."

It is an exhausting but occasionally rewarding exercise.

My questions provided some relief for Phil Carter, 47, from Mortlake, who admitted: "It's tiring, but it's worth it.

"I've not seen a bittern for 25 years, up in Norfolk, but this is a brilliant place and hopefully this will put it on the map."

The concept of a recreated conservation area is catching on, with the success of Barnes held up as a model about to be emulated in Hong Kong.

Mr Senior added: "The bitterns prove that the habitat is working and it proves you can play God and create a habitat that functions just like a real one."

He expects the bitterns, all female, to return to Europe before the spring, but they could revisit Barnes next year and make it their winter retreat.

See also:

19 Dec 01 | Sci/Tech
British birds stage patchy recovery
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