Updated: Mar 28
A name that some may have heard before. But very few people have ever seen it in Mondsee and there are several reasons for that.
It is not a permanent visitor to the lake and usually only lives there for a few weeks in the winter months of December and January. Namely, exactly at the time when the waters in the north are partially frozen, they use it as a wintering place.
Only very few people spend time at the lake in the winter months and so the secret guest in Mondsee is hardly noticed.
In addition, the bittern usually seeks shelter in the deep reeds and is extremely well camouflaged with its plumage markings. If it assumes the "pole position" in danger, its beak rises steeply and its plumage merges completely with the reeds.
If the wind also moves the reed, then it moves back and forth in rhythm with the reed and becomes almost invisible. Even the young birds from the 10th day onwards have already mastered this tactic excellently. The bittern is a true master of camouflage in its habitat.
For more than two years i had tried to observe them in Mondsee and, above all, to get them in front of my lens. But I had never succeeded. Not once did it show itself to me, not even after countless hunts, and this in sometimes inhospitable sub-zero temperatures in the depths of winter.
Of course, I caught a few other lake inhabitants with my camera during this time, such as the lively water rail, pond ducks, mallards, great crested grebes, grey herons and even the beaver sometimes showed itself in the early morning. So there was always something going on, but the bittern just didn't show up.
Doch an diesem Tag sollte alles anders sein. Morgens um halb sieben war ich diesmal am Ansitz und stolperte ins Tarnzelt, es war noch stockdunkel. Ich benutzte wie immer keine Taschenlampe, um keine unnötige Unruhe bei den Schilfbewohnern zu verursachen. Das Thermometer zeigte frische -1°C an.
Slowly, the reeds came to life and the first sounds of great crested grebes, ducks and water rails could be heard. The water rails came by very early, looked around a bit, but disappeared again in a hurry. The water rail is always in a hurry and hardly ever stands still. It was still far too dark for a good photo and it was hard to see the hand in front of the eyes.
At this time of year there is only a very small window of about 2.5 hours when the sun comes through at this spot. It is very low in winter and the mountains behind me cast long shadows far across the lake. It is not until about 11.00 a.m. that the first rays of sunlight come through and also noticeably warm up the surroundings.
Suddenly at 9.30 a.m. I see a head appear on the left edge and I can't believe my eyes. It looks suspiciously like a bittern. Very, very slowly and carefully it enters the stage.
Crouched and with extreme caution, she crept past me. Its eyes nervously scanned everything around it so that it could immediately take flight in case of enemies or undefinable movements in the surroundings.
Bitterns usually move at a very leisurely pace and I had the feeling that a slow-motion film was playing before me. Every step happened extremely slowly and sometimes seconds passed before the next step was taken.
It is a very nervous and attentive bird and therefore also a huge challenge for wildlife photographers. You have to think carefully about panning the camera, and if you do, then only as slowly as the bittern itself is moving. Otherwise you have already lost. As always, I sit in my camouflage tent to be as invisible as possible. Without it, it would not be possible to sit in it at all.
As surprisingly as the bittern appeared, it also disappeared "quickly" into the protective reeds.
10 minutes later, another bittern came from the left and quickly disappeared into the reeds on the right. I assumed that these were two different birds, possibly a pair.
Now i had to wait and be patient again and i had the faint hope that one of the two might come back again and perhaps under ideal photographic conditions. 😁
In the meantime it had become 12.00 o'clock and I swore not to go home that day until one of the two bitterns appeared here again. They must come back from the right side at some point, as the reeds end after a few metres.
12.15 p.m. - I heard a cracking sound in the reeds and searched the reed belt opposite with my eyes. Nothing was to be seen!
There it was again, the cracking in the reeds....and then I see it in front of me, the bittern slowly emerging from the reed belt.
With slow steps she cautiously came closer and this at an ideal time, where best light conditions prevailed - quasi a lottery draw for a wildlife photographer like me 😁
I was at least as tense as the bittern itself and tried not to make any mistakes. "Just no quick movements with the camera" I thought. I won't get this chance again so quickly.
To venture into an open area without reeds takes a lot of effort for the bittern, so completely without protective reeds, and she acted accordingly cautiously.
In the meantime, the proximity to me was sensational, she came within 5 metres of me, close enough to touch.
On this day I had a fixed focal length of 400mm on my camera and due to the extreme closeness I had a hard time to get everything of the bittern on the picture.
Sometimes I had to switch to portrait format because of the proximity and this was a razor's edge every time. I had to overcome myself not to turn and pan too quickly. Highly concentrated, I almost forgot to breathe.
Great bittern profile
Scientific name: Botaurus Stellaris
English name: Great Bittern
Size: 70 - 80 cm
Wingspan: about 130 cm
Mating season: March/April
Breeding season: April to June
Breeding period: 25 days
Number of eggs/nest size: 5-6
Weight: Females approx. 1100g - Males approx. 1900g
Age: Life expectancy 12 years
Migratory bird: Yes
List of enemies: White-tailed eagle, fox, marten, humans, climate change
The great bittern feeds mainly on fish, frogs and water insects. However, smaller mammals such as mice are also part of its diet and it also likes to prey on duck nests.
In spring, the males make muffled mating calls that can be heard for miles and have earned the bittern the popular names of bog ox, water ox and moss cow. It sounds almost like a foghorn.
Due to habitat loss, especially destruction of reed beds or drainage, the bittern is highly endangered and on the red list. At many water bodies, recreational activities have had a catastrophic effect on the population, as Bitterns are extremely sensitive to disturbance.
There are only very few optimal conditions left in Austria, and as far as I know, fixed populations are mainly found only on Lake Neusiedl.
The whole spell in front of me lasted about 40 minutes and then she ran away and left before my eyes. That was it and I realised at that moment how lucky I was that day. I remained sitting for a while, but the second bird did not show itself again.
On the following days I tried a few more times at the same spot, but the two bitterns must have moved on long ago.
What remained was a deeply relaxed, satisfied wildlife photographer 😊😊
You want to stay up to date and receive more of these WILDLIFE STORIES - just sign up as a member here