Boom time for bit­terns thanks to in­ter­ven­tion

Rochdale Observer - - THE LAUGHING BADGER -

MANY bird species are in ur­gent need of help, and more are join­ing the list of those in trou­ble than the list of those that have re­cov­ered, the bal­ance may be tip­ping. In times of eco­nomic un­cer­tainty, money must be used with great care.

It’s clear that some species need more help than oth­ers but, my friends at the RSPB are in­creas­ingly tasked with a big de­ci­sion. Which species to help first and where will any money be best spent. To this end the or­gan­i­sa­tion de­vel­oped a species re­cov­ery strat­egy, where they iden­ti­fied the scarce birds which are strug­gling but also those which are not cur­rently de­clin­ing, and in par­tic­u­lar where a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion was on RSPB na­ture re­serves.

For ex­am­ple, a great deal of time and money has been spent on rar­i­ties such as the Hen Har­rier.

This is largely in the field of ed­u­ca­tion and the high­light­ing of il­le­gal bird of prey pros­e­cu­tion.

On the other hand, the RSPB have not taken its col­lec­tive eye off the ball, so to speak, with birds like the Bit­tern, which is do­ing well in the reed beds of Leighton Moss and other re­serves. Once com­mon in wet­lands, bit­terns be­came ex­tinct as breed­ing birds in the UK in the late 19th cen­tury, as a re­sult of wet­land drainage and hunt­ing.

These birds were next recorded as breed­ing in Nor­folk in 1911. They slowly re-colonised from there and by 1954 there were around 80 boom­ing males. How­ever, num­bers dropped again as their reedbed habi­tats be­came drier through lack of man­age­ment. By 1997 only 11 boom­ing bit­terns were recorded in the UK and there was a sim­i­lar pat­tern of de­cline in bit­terns across western Europe. Alarmed by the plung­ing bit­tern num­bers, the RSPB started a re­search pro­gramme to in­ves­ti­gate the needs of this pre­vi­ously lit­tlestud­ied bird. This led to some clear man­age­ment rec­om­men­da­tions that have been, and still are be­ing, im­ple­mented at many sites in the UK.

Bit­terns are dif­fi­cult to study as they are found in low den­si­ties in habi­tats which are dif­fi­cult to work in. The re­search looked at the habi­tat that bit­terns pre­fer, their feed­ing re­quire­ments, the home range of male bit­terns, as well as fe­male nest­ing re­quire­ments, chick diet and their dis­per­sal.

To find this in­for­ma­tion, light­weight ra­dio-trans­mit­ters were at­tached to bit­terns at two RSPB re­serves so that their move­ments could be tracked. Later, young birds at the nest were also ra­dio-tagged and their food pref­er­ences stud­ied.

Man­age­ment work to date has stopped reedbed degra­da­tion, and the projects un­der way should pro­vide sig­nif­i­cant ar­eas of high-qual­ity reedbed in the fu­ture. How­ever, it will take many years for these new sites to ma­ture.

The knowl­edge that the RSPB has gained about bit­terns’ needs, as well as how to man­age and cre­ate reedbeds, is be­ing shared among those man­ag­ing reedbeds.

Over­all, the prospects for UK bit­terns ap­pear to be good, how­ever, the RSPB’s aim is to plan ahead and fac­tor in fu­ture pos­si­bil­i­ties which may af­fect the birds, for ex­am­ple cli­mate change.

If sea lev­els rise, salt­wa­ter could flow into coastal reedbeds, mak­ing the habi­tat un­suit­able for bit­terns. As a re­sult, sev­eral new reedbeds are be­ing cre­ated in­land, away from vul­ner­a­ble coasts, such as Lak­en­heath Fen in Suf­folk and the Han­son–RSPB Wet­land Project in Cam­bridgeshire, where five square kilo­me­tres of reedbed are planned.

The near­est bit­terns for read­ers are at Leighton Moss, Sil­verdale, in Lan­cashire. This is one of my favourite re­serves, not least be­cause I’ve been lucky enough to spot a bit­tern every time I visit but, their neigh­bours are pretty at­trac­tive too: in­clud­ing marsh har­ri­ers, beared tits, pere­grines, ot­ters, av­o­cets and red deer.

●●An adult bit­tern (Bo­tau­rus stel­laris) wad­ing in a reed bed at Lee Val­ley Coun­try Park.

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