“And the loud Bittern from the bull-rush home Gave from the Salt-ditch side the bellowing boom” – George Crabbe, ‘The Borough’
The Eurasian, or Great Bittern (Botaurus stellaris), famed for its booming cry across the marshes, is a favourite bird of mine. Highly secretive and seldom seen, they hide in their reed beds sulky, sodden, suspicious. They have always reminded me of guilty fugitives, birds desperate to remain concealed from the human gaze, an image no doubt triggered by their heavy persecution and eventual extinction from Britain in the late 19th century. Stalking through the reeds with retracted neck, haltingly, carefully placing one foot before the other, they appear as hunched and shifty, dagger-beaked old men, streaked and speckled with a tawny tweed camouflage. Also inspiring terror and myth, in Serbian folklore the bittern gave rise to tales of a monstrous fiend called the Drekavac. Likewise, a passage from The Hound of the Baskervilles suggests the bird as a possible culprit for the sinister screams heard on Dartmoor:
A long, low moan, indescribably sad, swept over the moor. It filled the whole air, and yet it was impossible to say whence it came. From a dull murmur it swelled into a deep roar, and then sank back into a melancholy, throbbing murmur once again.
Having not had the privilege of hearing the bittern’s boom, I cannot account for the accuracy of Conan Doyle’s interpretation. My field guide describes it as a ‘repeated, deep rhythmic boom, ker-whooomp! like the sound made by blowing over the top of a bottle.‘ John Clare described the bird as the ‘butter bump’, on account of how he personally interpreted its strange cry. Perhaps one day I will be able to invent my own name for it. Now a protected species on select reserves such as Minsmere in East Anglia and Leighton Moss in Lancashire, the bittern is making a gradual comeback.