A small member of the heron family, barely larger than a pigeon, the little bittern is an extremely rare breeding visitor to Britain, with only limited reports of the species in the UK since the first official record in 1984.
Little bitterns are tiny in size and have distinctive thick necks and long, sharp bills.
Males and females are unalike, with males having a striking black crown, nape, shoulders, upper wings, back and tail, which has a clear greenish-iridescent tinge. The throat and breast are buff-pink, and heavily patterned with light streaking. Their forewings have a distinctive and large pinkish oval-shaped patch, while their underwings are off-white.
Adult birds have yellow or green legs that are more yellow on the rear. Their eyes are yellow and their bill can be either yellow or yellowish-green.
Female little bitterns are duller in appearance, with a brownish crown, darker streaked markings to the throat and breast, and brown patterning to the upper wings. The same oval-shaped pale wing patch is present but may be slightly streaked.
Juvenile little bitterns resemble adult females but are more heavily streaked, with a brown crown and mottled brown and buff wings.
Male Little Bittern
Female Little Bittern
Similar in stature to other small bittern and heron species, the little bittern is the smallest heron species to breed in Europe. Females are slightly smaller and lighter in weight than males.
Little Bittern stretching its wings whilst standing in shallow muddy water
Outside of the breeding season, little bitterns are relatively non-vocal birds, with their deep barking, frog-like call heard when males begin advertising for mates and claiming territories early each spring.
Little Bittern perching on branch
Fish, amphibians, and insects caught at the edges of wetland habitats are the main diet of little bitterns. Crustaceans, molluscs, worms, frogs, tadpoles and small reptiles are also eaten. Little bitterns are crepuscular, with their most active feeding periods at dusk and dawn.
Little bitterns feed their young by regurgitating food directly into their bills, especially fish and aquatic insects and their larvae.
Little Bittern with a fish in its beak
Freshwater marshes, flooded ditches, swampland, and lakes with dense vegetation offer an ideal habitat for breeding little bitterns, where they can feed and nest among the waterside rushes and reeds without being detected.
On wintering grounds, habitats become more diverse and open, including cultivated fields, lake shores with sparse vegetation cover, riverbanks and mangroves.
Little bitterns are summer visitors to Europe and Central Asia, breeding throughout central, southern and eastern Europe. Their range extends from parts of Spain, Portugal and France in the west, central Germany, Poland and the Baltic States in the north, western Russia and Kazakhstan in the east, and Iran and north-western India in the south.
Little bitterns are absent from Scandinavia and Britain and Ireland, except for rare and occasional reports of isolated breeding pairs. Europe’s temporary population heads to sub-Saharan Africa once the breeding season finishes and is particularly widespread on wintering grounds in eastern and southern regions of the continent.
Sub-Saharan Africa is home to resident populations of little bitterns that breed across the continent, and remain there all year round, with some local dispersal at the end of the breeding season.
Little Bittern perching in natural habitat
An estimated 37,000 pairs of little bitterns breed in Europe, with Russia, Hungary, Spain, Ukraine, Italy and Romania being home to the largest populations.
In the UK little bitterns are highly rare as a breeding species, with the first records dating from 1984, and then subsequent reports of continued breeding for several years in Somerset from 2009 to 2017. Their elusive and secretive nature makes them hard to spot and even harder to accurately monitor.
The first record of breeding little bitterns was observed in South Yorkshire in 1984. Prior to this, almost 150 anecdotal reports exist, with sightings in Kent, Essex, Cambridgeshire and East Anglia. In recent years, breeding has been regularly reported in Somerset between 2009 and 2017, and although no reports were made in 2018, a male was heard at the same site in 2019.
Little Bittern swallowing a fish
No data is available for the average or maximum life expectancy of little bitterns, due to a lack of records from ringing schemes. Age at first breeding is thought to be two years.
Martens and American mink are among the leading predators of little bitterns’ eggs and their nests.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act, of 1981 makes it a criminal offence to knowingly kill, injure or take a wild little bittern into captivity. The species is also included in the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds, and their wetland habitats are identified for conservation efforts in both breeding and non-breeding areas.
Little bitterns are not endangered and are classified as a species of least concern across their global range.
In the UK, little bitterns have Amber status on the British Birds of Conservation Concern list. Across Europe, declines have been noted in Belgium, France, Germany, Estonia, Lithuania and Poland.
Little Bittern perching on reeds
Male little bitterns construct their nests in dense aquatic vegetation, including grasses, reeds, rushes and papyrus, slightly raised above the water level.
Occasionally, the species may nest in the lower branches of waterside trees. Their nests feature a conical base, with a loose platform of twigs and reeds, which is then lined with leaves and softer plant stems.
Europe’s little bitterns typically nest between May and June, with breeding usually complete by late July.
The nesting season of little bitterns that are resident in Africa all year round varies according to region and can extend from June to February in the extreme southern regions of South Africa.
Eggs laid by little bitterns are pure white with no markings or blotches, and measure 35 mm by 26 mm (1.4 in by 1 in). Normally 5 to 6 eggs are laid, which are then incubated by both the male and female for 17 to 19 days.
Little bitterns are monogamous for the duration of a breeding season, usually raising one brood together in Europe, while two broods in the same season is not unusual for little bitterns resident in Africa.
Little Bittern nest with chicks and eggs
Little bitterns are solitary nesters although occasionally may tolerate other birds of the same species nearby. They are particularly territorial about their feeding sites and will noisily and aggressively defend an area that is particularly well stocked.
Young female Little Bittern in-flight
Europe’s population of little bitterns is fully migratory, leaving their breeding grounds for wintering sites in southern and eastern Africa in late summer.
Peak migration across North Africa is seen between August and October and each spring from March until May, with breeding little bitterns reaching their European nesting areas from April onwards.
Little bitterns are only very rarely recorded in the UK, and sightings are limited to the breeding season, between May and July. By August, return migration is underway to their African wintering territories.
Common Little Bittern
Family:Herons, storks and ibises
27cm to 38cm
40cm to 58cm
59g to 150g
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