One bittern, very shy!

Bird watchers have an extra reason to be excited this spring following a confirmed sighting of the endangered Australasian Bittern at Sale Common.

“This is such a thrill to find the Bittern in this area once again,” said Deb Sullivan from BirdLife Australia.

The Australasian Bittern is an endangered wetland bird, highly dependent on freshwater, good habitat and adequate food supply for this top-order predator. The Bittern is a species of significance under the Ramsar Convention for the Gippsland Lakes.

The Bittern is also known as the Boomer, Bunyip, Black-backed or Brown Bittern.

Masters of camouflage, they are a difficult bird to see as their plumage blends in with their preferred habitat. When confronted by a perceived threat they rely on this camouflage to ‘disappear’ into the vegetation, they have even been known to mimic the movement of the surrounding foliage as they stand very still, point their beaks skyward, and watching until the threat has passed

One of its unique attributes is its call which is a distinctive ‘booming’ noise.

“The loud, deep booming call of the male cannot be mistaken. It is entirely different to the regular bird calls you often hear in a place like the Sale Common. The male will boom in a series of three or four calls which are known as a ‘boom train’ and most often heard around sunset or sunrise” says Ms Sullivan.

“To find an Australasian Bittern in this location once again is exciting. The last reported sighting of the species in the Sale Common was 1992,” added Ms Sullivan.

“The recent managed inflows into the Common following rainfall in the Latrobe River catchment has certainly made the Common a more attractive environment for the Bittern” concluded BirdLife Australia’s Deb Sullivan, who has been researching this cryptic bird for a number of years.

Funding has been provided for a monitoring program by the Victorian State Government through the Gippsland Lakes Coordinating Committee.

The Sale Common has received additional inflows over the past three months which have been managed by the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority.

Environmental Water Officer with the WGCMA, Dr. Adrian Clements says that the inflows have had a host of positive impacts including the recent confirmed sighting of the Bittern.

“The inflows have allowed a range of species to flourish over the last couple of months ranging from frogs to other species of birds, but the Bittern is something of a coup as it is so seldom sighted in the area,”

“Being such a sensitive species to changes in habitat and water quality, it tells me that we are on the right track regarding water management in the Common. That’s not to say it’s been easy, the drought conditions experienced in Gippsland over the past 12 to 18 months has made it difficult to deliver water for the environment into the Common.

“Now that we have water in there, it’s providing habitat and refuge for species dependent on freshwater in a dry landscape.”

Bitterns live in freshwater wetlands with suitable habitat to provide cover from predators and for nesting. It prefers to forage for food in shallow waters.

The Australasian Bittern feeds on frogs, eels, fish, yabbies and spiders, all of which are present in the Common with the added inflows this spring.

“One of the biggest threats to both the Australasian and Little Bittern is the drainage of freshwater wetlands, salinity, drought and lack of suitable habitat”

It’s also something of a night bird so to see it so clearly during the day is also very special,” concluded Dr Clements.

Further monitoring of the area is taking place in the hope of identifying more Bitterns as well as other species not commonly seen in the area that maybe attracted by the freshwater. This Bittern project is funded by the Victorian State Government for the health of the Gippsland Lakes.

Photograph: A photo of the Australasian Bittern at Sale Common taken by Heather Alexander.