It’s one of the UK’s most elusive birds — and hasn’t been sighted in Ireland at all in 150 years. But Irish birdwatchers enjoyed a late Christmas present last week after three bitterns were spotted at Lake Tacumshane in Co Wexford.
The bittern became extinct in the UK and Ireland in the 19th century. Only a handful have managed to re-colonise and breed in England — but they haven’t been seen on Irish shores for a century-and-a-half.
The heron-like reedbed birds may have taken refuge in Ireland from low temperatures in France, said Birdwatch Ireland’s Niall Hatch.
“This is tremendously exciting news as bitterns became extinct here in the mid-19th century. At least three have been spotted in reed beds at Lake Tacumshane, but there could be many more because it’s very difficult to spot them as they are so secretive,” he said.
“When they are frightened or startled they point their beak up to the sky, which camouflages them perfectly because their beak resembles a reed bed.”
The bitterns could be among a vanguard of once-vanished species making their way back to their former haunts.
Dr Marc Ruddock of the Raptor Study Group said of the spread of species: “One of the biggest ones is the great spotted woodpecker, which has certainly been found in several areas in Co Down and also in Co Wicklow. It’s been appearing and breeding over the last two or three years,” he said.
“We also have an American sub-species of the hen harrier, the northern harrier, which was seen in the same place as the bittern. These things that are turning up are quite unusual — there could be anything coming in the next few years.
“The little egret has also been spreading through natural colonisation — we’ve probably been ignoring them somewhat as they’re almost so common now — they’re doing really well.
“That spread has been amazing — at first they were only found around Cork, but by now they’re probably breeding in the Strangford Lough area. They’re quite widespread now, and again that would be a natural colonisation.”
A little egret was seen flying over Moat Park in Dundonald, Belfast, on Christmas Eve.
The Bittern: One of Britain’s rarest birds found strolling along a road
The brown and black bird was spotted by a member of the public as it strolled around Bamber Bridge, and was rescued by an RSPCA animal collection officer.
It was uninjured but considerably underweight, probably as a result of an inability to find enough food in the recent cold weather, the charity said.
Staff at Stapeley Grange Wildlife Centre near Nantwich, Cheshire, fed the bittern up on a diet of sprats to a healthy weight and it is being released at RSPB Leighton Moss nature reserve in Silverdale, Carnforth, on Friday.
The RSPCA animal collection officer who rescued the bird, Sonia Hulme, said: “This was a very special rescue for me as bitterns are so incredibly rare.
“When I came to collect it I was stunned by how beautiful it was – I have never come close to such a rare species before and to be involved in its rescue and rehabilitation was a dream come true.”