Elusive Bittern spotted at the Sale Common

BIRD watchers have an extra reason to be excited this spring following a confirmed sighting of the endangered Australasian Bittern at Sale Common.

The top-order predator is an endangered wetland bird, highly dependent on freshwater, good habitat and adequate food supply.

The Bittern is a species of significance under the Ramsar Convention for the Gippsland Lakes.

It is also known as the Boomer, Bunyip, Blackbacked or Brown Bittern.

Masters of camouflage, they are a difficult bird to see as their plumage blends in with their preferred habitat.

When confronted by a perceived threat they rely on this camouflage to 'disappear' into the vegetation.

They have even been known to mimic the movements of the surrounding foliage as they stand still, point their beaks skyward, and watch until the threat has passed.

One of its unique attributes is its call, which is a distinctive 'booming' noise.

BirdLife Australia's Deb Sullivan, who has been researching this cryptic bird for a number of years, said it was a thrill to find the Bittern in Sale Common once again, adding the last reported sighting was in 1992.

"The loud, deep booming call of the male cannot be mistaken," she said.

"It is entirely different to the regular bird calls you often hear in a place like the Sale Common.

"The male will boom in a series of three or four calls which are known as a 'boom train' and most often heard around sunset or sunrise.

"The recent managed inflows into the Common following rainfall in the Latrobe River catchment has certainly made the Common a more attractive environment for the Bittern."

Funding has been provided for a monitoring program by the state government through the Gippsland Lakes Coordinating Committee.

The Sale Common has received additional inflows during the past three months, managed by the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority.

WGCMA environmental water officer Dr Adrian Clements said the inflows had a host of positive effects, including the recent confirmed sighting of the Bittern.

"The inflows have allowed a range of species to flourish over the last couple of months, ranging from frogs to other species of birds, but the Bittern is something of a coup as it is so seldom sighted in the area," he said.

"Being such a sensitive species to changes in habitat and water quality, it tells me that we are on the right track regarding water management in the common.

"That's not to say it's been easy - the drought conditions experienced in Gippsland over the past 12 to 18 months have made it difficult to deliver water for the environment into the common.

"Now that we have water in there, it's providing habitat and refuge for species dependent on freshwater in a dry landscape."

Bitterns live in freshwater wetlands with suitable habitat to provide cover from predators and for nesting.

It prefers to forage for food in shallow waters, feeding on frogs, eels, fish, yabbies and spiders - all of which are present in the common with the added inflows this spring.

"One of the biggest threats to both the Australasian and Little Bittern is the drainage of freshwater wetlands, salinity, drought and lack of suitable habitat," Dr Clements said.

"It's also something of a night bird, so to see it so clearly during the day is also very special."

Monitoring is taking place in the hope of identifying more Bitterns in the area, as well as other species not commonly seen in the area which may be attracted by the freshwater.

The Bittern project is funded by the state government, for the health of the Gippsland Lakes.

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