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A scarce species of dense reed beds and more often heard than seen

Photograph by: 
Peter Orchard

When I got home after taking this photograph I thought it was rubbish and was just about to delete it when it occurred to me that this is actually as good a view as you are likely to get of a bittern (Botaurus stellaris) unless you are a professional who is prepared to go to extreme lengths to get a photograph. I like to show people nature as they are likely to see it and, as I said above, if you are lucky enough to see one then this is the sort of view you probably have!

The bittern is a very shy and secretive bird that lives in dense reed beds; its striped brown plumage makes it totally camouflaged in this favoured environment. It is also quite rare in this country although, thanks to sterling efforts by various conservation organisations, the numbers of breeding pairs is now increasing after hitting an all time low not that many years ago. This tendency to keep itself hidden away in impenetrable habitat makes seeing one quite something.

They may be difficult to see but they are certainly easy to hear. In the spring the males make a loud booming sound, like a cannon, that travels quite a long way. It tells other males that the local patch is taken and also, of course, tells any females in the vicinity that there is a willing and fitting partner just waiting for her to drop by. It is noticeable that most reports come in March and April when they are most vocal. 

If you do see one in flight they are quite distinctive in shape and are readily identifiable.



Bittern: booming marvellous

Common Name Bittern
Scientific Name Botaurus stellaris
Species Group Birds Egrets Herons and Storks
Status Scarce
Interest Level
  • 01 - January
  • 02 - February
  • 03 - March
  • 04 - April
  • 05 - May
  • 06 - June
  • 07 - July
  • 08 - August
  • 09 - September
  • 10 - October
  • 11 - November
  • 12 - December
Look for

A brown, pointed bird flying over reed beds

Identification Notes
  • Rarely seen unless they take flight when their unique profile makes them unmistakable
  • Totally dependent on dense reedbeds you will be unlikely to see a bittern anywhere else
  • Although difficult to see they can be heard, their booming sound echos from reedbeds in spring
Primary Habitat
Preferred Environment
Look for
Additional Identification Notes
Similar Species

The records for this species have been organised into reports, charts, maps and photos. Click a pic below to see the detail:

Notebook Distribution Map Sites List Some Charts Some Photographs Recent Records Guidance Notes

To see related species click here: 

Birds Egrets Herons and Storks