The Australasian bittern

Have you seen an Australasian bittern lately? If your answer was ‘no’ (and it almost certainly was), it is hardly surprising—they are one of the most difficult to spot birds in the country.

If you’re lucky, you may have heard one. The birds’ booming call, emanating deep from within misty swamps and billabongs, is the most likely source of the bunyip legend in Aboriginal folklore—a legend which haunted early white settlers unfamiliar with the sounds of the Australian bush. The ‘bunyip bird’ also goes by several other noms de plume, including ‘boomer’ and ‘Murray bull’; all due to the nature of its extraordinary calls, which have been likened to the lowing of cattle.

Yet it is incredibly challenging to see the Australasian bittern in the wild. Their cryptic plumage and posture, their shy nature and habitat of impenetrable reeds and rushes, as well as their probable population decline as a result of drought and the loss and degradation of their wetland habitats, all contribute to their ‘tough-to-twitch’ nature.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the Australasian bittern is one of our least-known and least-studied species. Because bitterns are so difficult to find they are also diffcult to study, and so the plight of the species has slipped under the radar. 

Andrew Silcocks & John Peter, Birdlife Australia

IREC Farmers’ Newsletter – Large Area No. 187: Spring 2012