RICHARD WILLIAMSON Nature Trails January 13

A reader telephoned to say he had just photographed a bittern in Fishbourne reedbeds.

It will have been one of at least a dozen in Sussex, fleeing the bitter weather in Norfolk, Holland and Northern France.

By now this bird might even be down in Africa, but more likely Cornwall.

Mr Smythe said he had not heard the bird booming. This curious call can be heard up to three miles away on a still spring night. It is only uttered in March until July.

You can make a rough imitation by blowing across the top of a bottle, though you would be heard only in the next room. The sound is like a cross between a bull and a horse.

Bitterns are also like a cross between a heron and an owl. Some have been mistaken for ‘big’ hen pheasants and I know one was shot mistakenly by a not-very-sensible gun in Hampshire 30 years ago who thought he was getting something for the pot, when his dog flushed it from the reedbeds.

Today people are more in the know about these heavily-protected and also very curious birds and a pair have nested recently in Hampshire.

The Norfolk broads are the main breeding grounds, with about 20 pairs now established by the RSPB and another five pairs in North Norfolk.

As with avocets and red kites, spoonbills and bustards, sea eagles and ospreys, people want to see these magnificent creatures alive and not just in a glass case.

In Queen Victoria’s reign, no fashionable mansion was without a splendid case of reeds with bittern embalmed, any more than a den would be liveable without a snarling tiger skin.

By 1870 the bittern market was well and truly stuffed, however, and ‘pipit-poppers’ and such ‘cockney tailors’ roaming the shores of the Thames in search of profit with their matchlocks and muzzle-loaders found bittern prices had dropped to an all-time low of six pence a bird, sold to poulterers for the table.

Indeed, there is one record from Eastbourne of a shooter bargaining with a taxidermist for a ‘best bittern’ at the door of his house while his wife was plucking it for the pot in the kitchen for another customer.

If you were ever lucky enough to see a bittern flying, you would never forget the experience. It hates being seen, however, so your chances are low. They appear like some huge moth.

Then when the breeding season returns, the males take to the skies.

Up they go, higher and higher, each trying the falcon’s trick of stooping on his rival, dagger beak at the ready, with which the victor might sometimes stab his enemy.

Corpses have been recorded in marshland with stab wounds.