Shy Bittern gets helping hand

The notoriously shy and fussy Australasian Bittern is at the centre of a new project aimed at better understanding this curious bird and the wetlands it chooses to call home.

Deb Sullivan, Project Manager for BirdLife East Gippsland, said not much is known about the habits of Bittern.

“We do know that the Bittern is very particular about wetland conditions,” explained Deb. “This means when we do have evidence of them in a wetland we can be sure that wetland is in good condition.

“For this reason, the presence of Bitterns at a wetland is an excellent indicator of wetland health.

“But, because of the shy nature of the Bittern – they are very difficult to find,” continued Deb.

The Australasian Bittern is a brown and cream, heavy-set, partially nocturnal bird. They are a nationally endangered species. BirdLife International estimates the global population is only between 1,000 to 2,500 mature birds and is decreasing.

“They live in dense beds of reeds and rushes within wetlands and they are very difficult to spot,” said Deb. “They are well camouflaged in this environment and when they are disturbed or feel threatened they stand still with their neck stretched up and bill pointing towards the sky.

“They have been known to even sway with the breeze in time with the reeds making them nearly impossible to see.”

Deb says to confirm the presence of the Bittern in a wetland, they need to rely upon more than physical sightings.

“We also use Song Meters to help identify the presence of the Bittern. They have a big booming call and are quite active at night. By recording their calls, we can start to get an idea of which wetlands they are using and then increase our monitoring to determine how many are using the wetland and if they are breeding there.

“Bittern are highly mobile and fly to the best habitat available. We’ve previously had them at Macleod Morass, and several other locations within the Gippsland Lakes

“As part of this project we’d like to track Bittern movements. In a similar Bittern project, the tracked birds were recorded flying from inland NSW to the South Australian coast, through Victoria’s coastal wetlands and back to the rice fields where they breed.

“One Bittern was recorded moving a massive 600kms overnight, a far greater distance than anyone expected these birds to travel.

“As part of this trip they fly over and ‘skip’ wetlands. Understanding why they don’t stop at these locations is an important part of understanding wetland health and then helping identify actions to improve the health of the wetlands.”

This project is funded by the Victorian State Government for the health of the Gippsland Lakes.