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First bitterns breed on Isle of Wight as bird’s bounce-back continues

RSPB confident that bitterns, once extinct in the UK, have successfully bred at newly restored wetland on the island.

Bitterns have seen their fortunes improve since the 1990s with the help of conservation efforts (RSPB/PA)
Bitterns have seen their fortunes improve since the 1990s with the help of conservation efforts (RSPB/PA)

Elusive bitterns have successfully bred on the Isle of Wight for the first time on record, as the bird continues its comeback, the RSPB has said.

This spring the distinctive “booming” mating call of the bird was heard for the first time on the island in newly restored wetland at the RSPB’s Brading Marshes.

While bitterns are highly camouflaged and can be hard to monitor, wardens at the reserve observed the birds making regular feeding flights over the summer, indicating young were present.

Assistant warden Luke Gaskin managed to capture photographs of a bird that may be one of this year’s fledglings in dense reedbed, in the restored wetland that stretches from the village of Brading to the sea at Bembridge Harbour.

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Rangers managed to capture a picture of what could be one of the young bitterns peeking out from the reedbed (Luke Gaskin/RSPB/PA)

The RSPB said it is confident that the birds have successfully bred at the site, making this the first ever bittern breeding record for the Isle of White.

It is the latest sign of success for the elusive bird, whose numbers fell to just 11 “booming” males in 1997, but is now recovering with the help of intensive conservation efforts to restore its wetland habitat.

The secretive, hard-to-spot birds were once a delicacy in medieval banquets and disappeared from Britain by the 1870s before recolonising in the early 20th century and reaching a peak of about 80 males in the 1950s.

Numbers are now on the increase again from their low 20 years ago, with the latest poulation survey this year recording 188 males at 82 sites, up from 164 at 71 sites in 2017, continuing a year-on-year increase in numbers since 2006.

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Bitterns were seen making regular feeding flights over the wetland (Martin Blackmore/PA)

Attracting breeding bitterns is considered to be one of the best indicators that wetland is being successfully managed, according to conservationists.

Brading Marshes has been restored by the RSPB in partnership with government agencies Natural England and the Environment Agency and with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and has also attracted new species including marsh harrier, little egret and great crested grebe.

In the South East, bitterns have previously recolonised restored wetlands at RSPB Dungeness in Kent, with three booming males recorded at the site this year.

Hearing a booming bittern on a wetland reserve is like receiving a Michelin star as a restaurant Keith Ballard, warden of RSPB Brading Marshes

But with fewer than 200 males at 75 sites across the UK, the discovery of a new pair breeding on the Isle of Wight is “remarkable”, the RSPB said.

Keith Ballard, warden of RSPB Brading Marshes, said: “Hearing a booming bittern on a wetland reserve is like receiving a Michelin star as a restaurant; it’s one of the highest marks of success we could hope for.

“Bitterns have very selective habitat needs, and to attract them you need a truly thriving ecosystem.

“The work we have done to manage the reserve for insects, fish, reptiles and mammals, as well as birds, now means we have one of the UK’s most sensitive species choosing to raise its young on the Isle of Wight.”

PA

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