Winter birding: bitterns on the River Witham – East Midlands

Keep your eye on the reedbeds for a chance to see this elusive bird

Photo: Rick Cameron


Winter can sometimes feel like a quiet time out in the countryside, but the coldest months can also provide some of the best times to observe birds on and around our waterways. While many familiar faces have shunned the British climate and headed for warmer climes, our relatively mild weather also attracts large numbers of different species to our shores. Meanwhile, year-round residents are often drawn into new habitats or drawn out into the open by the colder weather, making some British favourites easier to spot.

One such is the bittern, a relative of the heron, which resembles its larger cousin in flight but is far more secretive and difficult to spot. The bittern’s mottled pale brown and black plumage keeps it well camouflaged in the reedbeds and when startled, it can straighten its neck and point its beak at the sky, making it almost impossible to spot among the surrounding foliage. You are most likely to see them fishing at the edge of the reedbeds, although they are often forced to venture further out of cover if the water freezes.

The bittern was almost lost in the UK. Declining need for cut reed during the 19th century meant much of the traditional habitat of the bittern was lost and numbers fell. But thanks to a dedicated conservation effort to restore reedbeds, numbers are on the rise and there are now an estimated 160 male bitterns in the UK.

The 82-mile River Witham in Lincolnshire is surrounded by peaceful marshy fenland for much of its length, making it ideal habitat for wading birds such as snipe, curlews and redshanks. Your best chance of spotting an elusive bittern is around 10km east of Lincoln, where the river passes alongside a stretch of reedbed at Fiskerton Fen. It’s a perfect opportunity to pause, pull out your binoculars and scour the landscape for one of these secretive birds.

And even if you aren’t lucky enough to see one, in the spring you might hear the incredible booming call of the male bittern, Britain’s loudest bird. By inflating their oesophagus then expelling the air out, they produce a deep booming sound, resembling a fog-horn, that can travel for up to 5km.

Read more about the River Witham on the Canal & River Trust website.