Potteric Carr Nature Reserve in Doncaster is celebrating this week after bitterns successfully bred at the site for the first time,
Bitterns are having a rocky road to recovery following their UK wide extinction around 1885 – a result of habitat loss and persecution at the time. After bitterns returned to Norfolk in 1900 they have continued to struggle as the reedbed habitat they so heavily depend on continues to diminish.
Bitterns have overwintered on the site for some time, and in recent years the males have given out their booming breeding call during spring, as can be heard in this video with Bill Oddie taken on the site a couple of years ago. Yet until this year, no female has answered their call. Tell-tale signs of breeding have been evident over the last few months, but as their nests are close to impossible to find and no young had been seen it could not be confirmed. However this Monday a young bittern was seen, meaning a pair have been successful this year.
Bitterns have been regular visitors to the reed beds at Potteric Carr since the 1990s. To begin with sightings were of overwintering birds, with up to six birds being seen in a day; a difficult task in itself for this is a secretive and well camouflaged wading bird. The key to bringing back the bittern across the UK is the improvement and expansion of reed bed habitats and as part of this, in 2004, Potteric Carr completed its Huxterwell Marsh extension.
Yorkshire Wildlife Trust Reserves Officer Jim Horsfall said: “We are thrilled! Over the last three years male bitterns at Potteric Carr have been making their characteristic booming sound during spring, a call they use to attract mates. This of course gave us hope that one day we may see some young bitterns.”
“Earlier this year there was much booming, followed by many sightings of adult birds, including what appeared to be some courtship flights, where a pair of birds fly together. Over time birders here then observed feeding flights within Huxterwell Marsh; this is where the adult bird returns to the same area to feed the young several times a day through late July and early August yet it was still difficult to confirm breeding. However on Monday a young bittern was seen for the first time.”
This is a great success for Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, and evidence that habitat restoration and creation work can have a big impact on rare species. The Trust has also been working to improve the fish populations of the nature reserve, which in turn provide food for bitterns. The UK bittern population was down to less than 20 breeding pairs in the 1990’s, and now the numbers have increased significantly, largely due to better management of existing wetlands and creation of new wetlands.
Jim added: “Seeing bitterns can be difficult due to their camouflaged plumage which blends in perfectly with the reed beds. But patience and a pair of binoculars can pay off. Birds are also seen flying from one reed bed to another giving good views if you time your visit right.”
The young bittern will probably stay around Potteric for a week or two, and then may move to other nearby sites. Bitterns are seen all year round at Potteric Carr Nature Reserve, with the largest numbers seen in winter when the population is swelled by wintering birds from elsewhere in the UK and Europe. Between January and June the males will sound their far carrying low frequency ‘boom’ to attract a female, this can often be heard at Potteric. Once breeding has occurred the male normally takes no further part; it is the female who will build the nest, incubate the eggs and rear the young.
The wonderful news comes soon after Yorkshire Wildlife Trust announced that marsh harrier bred for the first time at Potteric Carr earlier this year. The young marsh harriers can still be seen on the nature reserve.
For more information about Potteric Carr Nature Reserve, opening times and more visit www.ywt.org.uk.