Of birds and words

PUBLISHED: 09:22 29 March 2016 | UPDATED: 09:22 29 March 2016

Bittern (Botaurus stellaris) spotted in Norfolk in February 2012

Bittern (Botaurus stellaris) spotted in Norfolk in February 2012

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The history of the heron and the boom of the bittern provide this month’s inspiration for Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Nick Acheson

SCIENTISTS AND naturalists love abstruse words, which mark them as members of an exclusive club. Having watched nature for as long as I have drawn breath I am steeped in the jargon and often, when writing for Norfolk Wildlife Trust, I find myself using a word which others might not know. My tactic at these times is to blurt the word out to the talented but non-naturalist colleagues with whom I share an office. If they don’t know the word I don’t use it.

This time, however, I’m starting with some nature jargon: Ardeidae. It’s the scientific name of the heron family. (We don’t say Latin name as many scientific names are Greek or even from indigenous languages around the world.) Heron species are found everywhere, except in areas where there is no water or it is frozen. In the UK of my childhood we had two breeding herons. The grey heron was widespread but in the 1980s Norfolk was one of very few counties to host bitterns.

In Norfolk a heron is known as a harnser. Today the word is obscure, as much a marker of an exclusive club as its scientific name, but it would once have been well known as a term for this dramatic bird. When Shakespeare’s Hamlet refers to his crumbling sanity, he says, “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw”. It is most likely that handsaw here is a corruption of harnser, something far more credibly identified from a hawk by a 16th century audience in London.

Always rarer by far, and a reclusive resident of reedbeds, was the bittern. It was nonetheless familiar enough, in the still undrained landscape of 14th century Britain, for Chaucer to refer to its booming song in the Wife of Bath’s Tale. Midas’ queen, unable to keep a secret, crouches bittern-like to whisper the news of the king’s donkey ears to the reeds. They in turn continue to whisper it today. “As a bitore bombleth in the myre, she leyde hir mouth unto the water doun.”

Though the grey heron remains common, the bittern’s fortunes in the UK have been, as Hamlet would have described them, outrageous. By the start of the 20th century the bittern was not to be found here as a breeding bird. Great was the excitement of the remarkable wildlife photographer Emma Turner when, with friends, she found a nest at Hickling in 1911. This led her to a long relationship with bitterns at Hickling and the documentation of many then-unknown aspects of their nesting behaviour. In her book Broadland Birds she describes the chick: “The young Bittern was the quaintest little ornithological oddity I had ever seen […]. A halo of light tan-coloured down stuck out all round his head, and his big greenish-blue eyes glared defiance.”

Emma Turner felt the bittern embodied the wildness of Broadland: “The curious and solemn booming of the Bittern has always been associated with waste places, and utter solitude.” She was in no doubt that it was persecution, not habitat loss, that had led to its prior disappearance: “The Great War was a godsend to them, because it kept the majority of gunners and collectors busy elsewhere.”

Such persecution continued for decades to come. When in 1937 Billy Bishop became warden of Cley Marshes, he found the reserve’s first bittern nest. As he recalls in his book Cley Marsh and its Birds, “Living at Cley when the first bittern bred was that notable collector, C D Borrer. I knew that he had never ‘got’ his bittern and that our birds were therefore in danger. So I went to his house and told him that I had found this nest and I would not tolerate any interference with it. I knew that the parent bird, while catching food, would be very vulnerable. He promised me that he would leave them entirely alone for that year and he kept his word.”

Today nesting birds are protected by law; and habitat in Broadland and north Norfolk is carefully managed for bitterns, which breed here regularly. Norfolk has gained a new breeding heron, the little egret, and, with cattle egrets and great egrets now breeding in southern England and both species increasingly seen in our county, it is not unlikely others will follow. Bitterns still boom at Hickling and April is a fine month for hearing them. It is a sound which recalls a Norfolk landscape we have all but lost, but which at Norfolk Wildlife Trust we are fighting to preserve. In Emma Turner’s words: “The older marshmen always spoke of this sound with a kind of awe, and the loneliness of the marshes seemed to me incomplete without it.”

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