Somerset Wildlife Trust

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Somerset's Avalon Marshes become boomtown for rare bird

 10th May 2011

Common BitternFor the fourth year running the distinctive and haunting call of one of Britain’s rarest breeding birds can be heard echoing across the reedbeds of the Avalon Marshes near Glastonbury.

Booming gorgeous!

The bittern, a member of the heron family, nests entirely in reedbeds. Male bitterns are known for their evocative “booming call” that they use to attract mates ­ and this year visitors to the marshes have been treated to an unprecedented 18 booming birds!

Steve Hughes, site manager for the RSPB at Ham Wall in the Avalon Marshes said: “Although Bitterns are difficult to see, at this time of the year, when the male calls to attract a mate, you can certainly hear them. The booming call resonates through the reedbed mainly at dawn and dusk, but this bird has also been calling occasionally during the daytime ­ much to the delight of our visitors.

“With a record 18 birds booming we hope that last year’s breeding success will be exceeded. This will mean that our fifteen year mission to establish a breeding population in the West Country has been a complete success.”

Reversing the decline of bitterns

Bitterns truly are amazing birds, known for their stargazing pose when hiding in the reeds. This stance, when they point their beaks to the sky as though scanning the heavens, makes them incredibly difficult to see and their colouring adds to the camouflage effect as they blend into the reeds.

Bitterns disappeared from Britain as a breeding bird in 1886 and drainage of the UK’s wetlands means they have endured a boom-and-bust history every since, plummeting to just 11 booming males in England in 1997. Its dependence on reedbeds and small population size makes it a Red Listed species, one of the most threatened in the UK.

A nationwide project was launched in 2002, funded through the EU’s LIFE-Nature programme, to reverse bittern declines. This project involved the creation or improvement of reedbeds at 19 UK sites, including the Avalon Marshes.

Last year the area was one of 47 sites identified across the country with active nests. It was also home to the second ever pair of little bitterns to breed in the UK.

Phil Holms, Senior Reserves Manager for Natural England in Somerset, said: “We are delighted to have played a part in the extraordinary success of bitterns in the Avalon Marshes area and that our visitors can now enjoy this iconic species once again.

Close partnership brings rewards

The partnership between Natural England, RSPB and Somerset Wildlife Trust is a close one and together with others, we are now progressing the exciting £1.8M Heritage Lottery Funded ‘Avalon Marshes Landscape Partnership’ which will improve access, habitats, heritage and support the building of a new multi-use visitor facility in the Avalon Marshes. Our aim, to introduce and engage more children to the rich wildlife and conservation landscape of the Avalon Marshes is one to which Natural England are fully committed”.

Mark Blake, Somerset Wildlife Trust Reserves Officer said:” The decades of work, and support from local volunteers to help create the right habitat, monitor and survey for these elusive birds, is really paying off for wildlife on the Avalon Marshes.

“As well as creating a place for these boomers on our nature reserves, our work with private landowners and farmers, through our Living Landscape project, is helping ensure we will be hearing their distinctive boom on the Marshes for decades to come.”

Listen to the bitterns

If you'd like to hear the haunting boom of a bittern visit our nature reserve at Westhay Moor