Scientific name: (Botaurus stellaris*)
Length: 69-81 cm
wingspan: 100-130 cm
The Bittern is a wader with patchy brown plumage which lives in wetlands (marshes, swamps, shores of lakes and large rivers and reclaimed areas, etc), preferring the edges of dense reedbeds, even in quite deep water, and rushes for nesting. It is partially diurnal but very elusive and difficult to see also due to its incredible capacity to camouflage itself: if it has to defend itself from a potential enemy it uses the camouflage provided by its plumage and assumes a curious vertical position, with its beak pointing upwards, becoming hidden amongst the reeds. It will only fly away or open its menacing wings if really pushed to it.
The Bittern prefers vast wetlands with dense aquatic vegetation (above all reeds mixed with other plants), interspersed with ponds, channels and small pools which are essential feeding sites. The more Northern populations migrate to Southern Europe in winter in order to avoid the icy areas.
The Bittern feeds in the marsh edges and the salts meadows where it mainly hunts amphibians and small fish, advancing carefully and scrutinising the water or standing still and waiting for the prey to come to it. In the winter months it does not disregard other prey such as mice or large worms, which it finds under mounds of detritus.
It builds its nest at ground level in the depths of the reedbeds and it usually lays 5-6 eggs. The male is polygamous and attracts females to his territory with a characteristic call, which is a sound like someone blowing into an empty bottle that can be heard from far away.
In Italy the Bittern is partially sedentary or overwintering and it is also possible to see it migrate. As a breeder it is only regularly present in particular locations on the Upper Adriatic coast, in Tuscany and Puglia where, however, the elimination of the reed beds, the poaching and disturbance in the breeding season are drastically affecting the population.
It is listed in the Birds Directive (79/409/EEC), in Appendix 2 of the Bonn Convention and in Annex II of the Bern Convention. It is considered vulnerable by Birdlife International (SPEC3) and its population is considered in decline in most European countries (Tucker & Heath 1994). In the recent New National Red List it is a species in danger of extinction in Italy with a population estimated at no more than 50 pairs (LIPU &WWF, edited by Calvario et al. 1999).
The LIFE+ project for the Bittern
The maintenance of the minimum water levels at 30 cm in the reed beds seems to influence the choice of feeding and reproductive area. In fact, the absence of water in the reed beds reduces trophic availability in the breeding season. (Cramp S & Simmons K. EL eds, 1977). The creation of 90 hectares of Mediterranean salt meadows in the SPA foreseen by the LIFE+ project increases food availability for the species. In addition to increasing the species mostly used by the Bittern as food (fish and amphibians) there will be a greatly increased availability of sites for access to this food (banks, lower water, natural vegetation, etc). The renaturalised area will also facilitate access and increase success in foraging in the young’s weaning period (July- September) thanks to the concentration of prey in ponds and pools. The planting of autochthonous vegetation (above all Phragmites australis and Typha spp) will not only guarantee the availability of refuge sites and hiding places which are particularly favoured during feeding, but can also be favourable reproductive sites in the future.
The LIFE+ Nature and Biodiversity 2007 project –“Conservation activities for priority avifauna in the Lago Salso Oasis” is structured according to 4 series of actions:
1 Preparatory actions
2 Concrete conservation actions
3 Awareness raising and communication actions
4 Monitoring actions