On Boxing Day this year (Dec 26th) at Ham Wall nature reserve in Somerset I saw a bittern. Not only did I glimpse this elusive bird, I saw it dance at the edge of a pool, close to a reed bed. I don’t know why it was dancing – perhaps as this winter has been generally quite mild it had started its courtship early. If so, it wasn’t the only one defying the season: nearby was a glossy ibis, a bird which should be feeding at this time of year in a warm swamp somewhere in Africa. The bittern jumped in the air a foot or so with wings uplifted, then turned a little, took a few steps, then jumped again, took a few steps more, and so on, thus traversing the short stretch of open space between the reeds and the water before disappearing from sight, as if it had just done a turn on a stage.
Like many a stage artist bitterns have a variety of aliases. Mark Cocker in Birds Brittanica lists a dozen, including ‘butter bump’, ‘bog blutter’ and ‘mire drumble’. The very sound of these names conjures up the dank conditions in which they live. Their ability to blend in with their surroundings is legendary, not only because of their camouflage, which perfectly mimics the reeds in which they live, but because they’re also one of nature’s shape shifters. When threatened a bittern can stand stock still with its long sharp bill pointed upwards. It can flatten itself on the ground if the reeds are similarly aligned, or gather its wings above its head like an umbrella and glare menacingly at an attacker. A bittern can move so stealthily it can seem to slither.
That’s not all. According to Mark they exude a strange substance called powder down, which is a dust produced by specialised feathers that helps them remain free from eel slime (and if you’ve ever held a live eel you’ll know why they’d want to do that). The dust can take on a variety of colours, from almost white to blue or purple. Apparently the dust tastes disgusting, as does the bittern as a whole; though that didn’t stop it being a delicacy in medieval times.
The bittern has come about as close to extinction in this country as it is possible to come without actually disappearing. In 2001 there were just 28 birds sending out their lonely booming call. There are rather more now, but they remain vulnerable to changes in their reedy environment.
For some reason bitterns have acquired a bad press over the ages, though they are relatively benign creatures and like nothing better than their own company. Maybe it is their call, which is eerie and has long been associated with bad luck, which seems in keeping with unsavoury regions they prefer. The Old Testament is particularly hard on the poor old bog blutter:
And he will stretch out his hand . . . and destroy Assyria; and will make Nineveh a desolation, and dry like a wilderness. . .. both the cormorant and the bittern shall lodge in the upper lintels of it; their voice shall sing in the windows (Zephaniah 2: 13-14)*
Now, neither the cormorant nor the bittern would ever willingly live in a dry wilderness, so one can only imagine that the author meant to convey through metaphor a world in which the climactic norms had turned upside down. A world in which a glossy ibis might take a winter holiday in the Somerset levels, perhaps?