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Page last updated at 07:52 GMT, Thursday, 6 May 2010 08:52 UK
Booming bittern: UK Minsmere wetlands film exclusive
By Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News

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Turn up the volume to hear the bittern's deep mating call

One of the rarest mating rituals of any British animal has finally been caught on camera.

A BBC natural history film crew has captured what experts believe is the first footage of a male bittern "booming" in daylight in the UK.

Only 82 male bitterns survive in the country and the birds make their loud "booming" call to attract females.

The full story of the "booming" bittern will be broadcast at 1900 BST on The One Show on BBC One on Thursday 6 May.

Seeing let alone filming a male bittern booming in daylight is incredibly difficult.

You won't hear any other sound from a bird like that in Britain
RSPB warden Adam Rowlands

"I've been here five and half years and I've not yet been fortunate enough to witness one booming," bittern expert Mr Adam Rowlands told the BBC.

Yet, under his direction, a BBC film crew led by camerman Mr Mark Payne-Gill managed to do just that at a nature reserve run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) at Minsmere, Suffolk.

Bitterns (Botaurus stellaris) are a well-camouflaged type of heron which inhabit reed beds and wetlands.

Owing to habitat loss and persecution by collectors and hunters, the bittern became extinct as a breeding bird in the UK in 1886.

A rare glimpse of a male bittern out in the open

Early last century, the bittern returned and its numbers steadily increased to a peak of about 80 booming males in the 1950s.

But further habitat loss, as the reed beds became dry and unsuitable, led to a second population crash.

In 1997, just 11 booming males survived at seven sites around the country.

So conservationists led by the RSPB and Natural England intensified efforts to safeguard the bird, by restoring British wetlands at key breeding sites.

Today, 82 booming males are known to reside in the UK.

MORE ABOUT WADING BIRDS

As yet, scientists do yet fully understand how the male bittern makes its deep "booming" call.

It is thought that the bird gulps in air, before expelling it again to produce its loud "boom", which can be heard up to 4.5km (2.8 miles) away.

Males are thought to "boom" to alert female bitterns to their presence, as the birds' striped markings make them very hard to spot among the reed beds.

"You won't hear any other sound from a bird like that in Britain," says Mr Rowlands.

However, usually the birds "boom" in the twilight at dusk, hidden among the darkness and reeds.

Even seeing a bittern in daylight is rare, let alone seeing one produce its mating call.

SOURCES

Despite efforts to save it, the future of the bittern in the UK remains uncertain.

Late last month, bittern experts Dr Gillian Gilbert and Mr Simon Wotton of the RSPB, and Dr Andrew Brown of Natural England, published a report in the journal Ibis warning that the nascent bittern population in the UK could be wiped out by sea-level rises predicted to impact the British coastline.

Over the coming century climate change may cause sea level to rise by 20-50cm, causing storm surges that may destroy sites where bitterns successfully nest, say the researchers.

While 82 booming males are known, during many years, fewer than half of the sites where they live are also inhabited by female bitterns.

To date, just 39 bittern nests producing chicks are known, an increase from 12 nests in previous years.

Reedbeds at the Minsmere nature reserve, Suffolk
Minsmere reedbeds

Any changes to the survival of bittern chicks will therefore have the most impact on the growth of the bittern population overall.

If reed beds at bittern breeding sites such as Minsmere, Walberswick and Easton Broad become inundated by seawater, then the population may not recover.

Because of that, say the researchers, it is imperative that new wetland sites are created quickly to enable bitterns to breed elsewhere.

The Return of the Booming Bittern will be broadcast at 1900 BST on The One Show on BBC One on Thursday 6 May.



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