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Bittern, The (1931)


Main image of Bittern, The (1931)
For Secrets of Nature
35mm, black and white, 9 mins
DirectorWalter Higham
Production CompanyBritish Instructional Films

The breeding cycle of the bittern, the cryptically plumaged relative of the herons.

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The bittern was an extremely rare bird at the time this film was made. It had become extinct in Britain by 1886 and only tenuously re-colonised since. Despite extensive conservation efforts it remains one of the rarest breeding birds in Britain. In 2005 there were only 46 calling males. Norfolk, where the film was shot, remains a stronghold.

That bitterns are also one of the most elusive members of the British avifauna makes Walter Higham's film all the more remarkable. Bitterns, as the film's commentary makes clear, are nervous and shy birds and make their nests in remote patches of water-drenched reed beds. Finding and then filming a breeding female bittern through a summer from incubation to the near fledging of chicks was an extraordinary achievement. Add to this several sequences following a bittern in flight and one of a bittern in the hand, and the value of the film becomes clear. Those flight views are as much as most birdwatchers can hope to achieve even today.

Not mentioned or illustrated by the film is the bittern's call. It is known for its extraordinary boom - the territorial call of the male - that carries for more than a kilometre. Booms vary from male to male and this is how ornithologists survey the bird today.

Walter Higham (miscalled 'Highams' on the film credit) went on to have a long career as a wildlife filmmaker and photographer, including becoming one of the first BBC wildlife cameramen.

Tim Dee

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Video Clips
1. Nesting (2:08)
Secrets of Nature (1922-33)