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8 Fascinating Facts About the Elusive Australasian Bittern

Birds are fascinating creatures that come in all shapes and sizes. One of the most interesting bird species that can be found in the Australasian region is the Australasian Bittern, or Botaurus poiciloptilus.

This elusive bird is known for its unique appearance and behavior, making it a favorite among birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts. In this article, we will explore the identification, plumages, and molts of the Australasian Bittern, as well as some similar species that may be mistaken for this bird.


Field Identification:

The Australasian Bittern is a relatively large bird that can grow up to 80 cm in length. It has a brownish-grey plumage, with distinctive black streaks on its neck and wings.

The neck is thick and long, and during flight, it is held straight out in front of the bird. The bill is long and pointed, and the legs are yellowish-green.

Similar Species:

The Australasian Bittern can be mistaken for some other bird species, such as the Little Bittern or the Green-backed Heron. The Little Bittern is smaller than the Australasian Bittern, with a more spotted plumage and a shorter neck.

The Green-backed Heron has a more greenish-brown plumage, and its neck is not as thick or as long as that of the Australasian Bittern. Plumages:

The Australasian Bittern has three plumages: the juvenile, the adult non-breeding, and the adult breeding.

Juvenile plumage:

The juvenile Australasian Bittern has a brownish-grey plumage with white spots on its back and wings. It also has a white throat and a less distinct black streak on its neck.

Adult non-breeding plumage:

The adult non-breeding Australasian Bittern has a similar plumage to the juvenile, but with less white spots on its wings and back. The black streak on its neck is more distinct in the adult non-breeding plumage.

Adult breeding plumage:

The adult breeding Australasian Bittern has a more dramatic plumage with a black and chestnut coloration on its neck and wings. The black streak on its neck is very distinct, and the bird also has white plumes on its crown.


The Australasian Bittern has two molts per year: the pre-basic molt and the pre-alternate molt. Pre-basic molt:

The pre-basic molt occurs after the breeding season, and it involves the replacement of all body feathers.

During this molt, the bird may become flightless for a period of time, making it vulnerable to predators. Pre-alternate molt:

The pre-alternate molt occurs in preparation for the breeding season, and it involves the replacement of only some feathers, such as those on the crown and neck.

This molt gives the bird its distinctive breeding plumage. Conclusion:

In conclusion, the Australasian Bittern is a unique and fascinating bird species that can be identified by its brownish-grey plumage and distinctive black streak on its neck.

It has three plumages: the juvenile, the adult non-breeding, and the adult breeding, and two molts per year. If you are a birdwatcher or nature enthusiast, keep an eye out for this elusive bird on your next trip to the Australasian region.

Systematics History:

The Australasian Bittern, or Botaurus poiciloptilus, belongs to the family Ardeidae, which includes other wading birds such as herons and egrets. The genus Botaurus contains four other species of Bitterns found in different parts of the world.

The taxonomic history of the Australasian Bittern has undergone significant changes over the years due to advances in DNA analysis and morphological studies. Geographic Variation:

The Australasian Bittern is found in various parts of Australia and New Zealand, as well as some nearby Pacific islands.

The distribution of this species is widespread, but it is patchy, and its numbers have declined due to habitat loss and degradation. The subspecies of the Australasian Bittern differ in their size, color, and bill proportion, indicating some level of geographic variation.


There are three recognized subspecies of the Australasian Bittern:

1. Botaurus p.

helios – This subspecies is found in the northern part of Western Australia and has a relatively larger bill and a darker plumage. 2.

Botaurus p. poiciloptilus – This is the nominate subspecies that is found in southeastern Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand.

It has a smaller bill and paler plumage than the other subspecies. 3.

Botaurus p. kupeensis – This is a subspecies that is confined to the North Island of New Zealand and is larger than the nominate subspecies but smaller than B.

p. helios.

It has a somewhat darker plumage than B. p.

poiciloptilus. Related Species:

The Australasian Bittern is closely related to other members of the genus Botaurus, which includes the American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus), the Eurasian Bittern (Botaurus stellaris), the Pinnated Bittern (Botaurus pinnatus), and the Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis).

These other species have similar morphology and behavior, and their relationships have been studied extensively through genetic analyses of DNA samples. Historical Changes to Distribution:

The Australasian Bittern has undergone significant changes to its historic distribution, mainly due to human activity.

Before Europeans arrived in Australia and New Zealand, the Australasian Bittern was likely widespread and common in suitable wetland habitats. However, over the centuries, human activities have led to extensive wetland loss and degradation, which has had a severe impact on the species.

In the late 1800s, wetland draining and reclamation for agriculture and urban development began to impact the availability of suitable habitats for the Australasian Bittern. Wetlands were also affected by logging, mining, and other land-use practices, leading to further degradation of their quality.

These disturbances have continued to the present day, and they remain a major threat to the survival of the species. In recent years, conservation efforts have focused on habitat restoration and protection for the Australasian Bittern.

The species has been listed as “Endangered” in some parts of its range, and its populations are closely monitored by researchers and conservation groups. Research efforts have also focused on learning more about the biology and behavior of the species to inform management decisions.


The Australasian Bittern is an important wading bird that is found in various parts of Australia and New Zealand. There are three recognized subspecies of the species that display some level of geographic variation in size, color, and bill proportion.

The Australasian Bittern has undergone significant changes to its distribution over the years due to human activities such as wetland loss and degradation. Today, conservation efforts are focused on restoring and protecting wetlands to provide suitable habitat for the species and reduce the threat of extinction.


The Australasian Bittern is a wetland species that requires suitably vegetated wetlands to breed and feed. Wetlands that harbor the Australasian Bittern consist of reed beds, Phragmites patches, cumbungi stands, or other dense emergent vegetation types.

It generally avoids still open waters but can occur on open water bodies, such as ephemeral lakes and dams. These shy and cryptic birds occur in various types of wetlands, from small temporary ponds and lagoons and ditches to large inland lakes, estuaries, and coastal saltwater and freshwater environments.

These wetlands may occur in a range of landscapes, including agricultural, pastoral, and forestry areas. Movements and Migration:

The Australasian Bittern is a partially migratory species, with some movements recorded during the winter months between different wetlands in its range.

The exact movements of the species are not yet fully understood, but it is known to move between different parts of its range in search of suitable breeding and/or feeding habitats. During the breeding season, the Australasian Bittern remains in its breeding range and becomes more territorial.

During this time, the birds stay hidden in dense vegetation and are difficult to observe. Adult birds have been known to make short movements between different parts of their breeding range, but generally, they remain in the same general area.

During the non-breeding season, the species is known to make more significant movements between different wetlands within its range. For example, radio telemetry studies have shown that some birds move up to 100 km between wetlands during this time.

The exact reasons for these movements are not yet fully understood, but it is believed that they may be related to the availability of food resources or suitable habitats. In addition to these local movements, some individuals of the Australasian Bittern may undertake more significant migrations to other parts of the region or the world.

This pattern has been observed in some satellite-tracked birds that have migrated to other parts of Australia or the Pacific region. Overall, the movements and migration patterns of the Australasian Bittern are still not well understood.

Additional research on the species’ ecology, behavior, and movements is needed to fully understand these patterns and how they are influenced by environmental factors, such as habitat availability and climatic conditions. Conservation Implications:

The Australasian Bittern is listed as “Endangered” in some parts of its range due to habitat loss and degradation from human activities.

The conservation of habitat is critical to the survival of the species, including protecting and restoring wetlands and maintaining connectivity between different wetland habitats. Wetland restoration projects can involve targeted planting of desirable aquatic vegetation types, wetland rehabilitation, improvement of water quality and flow regimes, and regulation of development in wetland-adjacent areas.

Protecting important habitats such as breeding sites, roosts, and feeding areas is also essential. Managing disturbances, such as water regimes, to ensure suitable habitat availability is critical.

Thus, water level management and water quality maintenance in these areas are essential for the persistence of the species. The seasonal timing of the water regime can affect availability of suitable breeding habitats, with long periods of waterlogging being an important feature.

Further research on movements, habitat use, and breeding areas of the Australasian Bittern are also needed to support the species’ conservation and management. This research should focus on identifying important habitats for the species, understanding the movements and migration patterns of the species, and informing the development of management strategies to best protect and conserve wetland environments.

With additional research and conservation efforts, it is possible to turn the tide for the Australasian Bittern and protect this iconic species for future generations. Diet and Foraging:


The Australasian Bittern is a solitary and elusive bird that uses its specialized bill to capture prey.

It feeds opportunistically on a variety of prey items, including aquatic animals such as fish, frogs, crustaceans, and aquatic invertebrates. The species is known to stalk its prey slowly, or to stand motionless and wait for prey to approach.

When it strikes, it uses its long bill to pick up prey items from the water surface or the vegetation. It has also been observed opening up pieces of vegetation to expose hidden prey.

The Australasian Bittern feeds during the night, crepuscularly or during very early morning, and can be highly mobile in search of prey. The bird’s small digestive tract means that one large meal a day can sustain it, enabling it to focus on the hunt less frequently and avoid unnecessary attention.


The diet of the Australasian Bittern varies depending on the availability of prey. In some areas, it primarily feeds on fish, while in others, it feeds more heavily on frogs and crustaceans.

The species has also been observed feeding on insects, mollusks, and other small aquatic animals. Diet shifts can occur as different prey items become more available or accessible over time.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation:

The Australasian Bittern has several adaptations that help it survive in its wetland habitat. The bird’s specialized bill allows it to capture prey in water and vegetation.

Additionally, the species has a slow metabolism that allows it to survive for long periods without food. During periods of low food availability, the species can reduce its metabolic rate and enter into a state of torpor to conserve energy.

The Australasian Bittern also has a specialized respiratory system that allows it to absorb oxygen efficiently. This adaptation is essential for the bird’s diving behavior and allows it to remain underwater for extended periods.

The bird’s feathers are also adapted to help it stay warm and regulate its body temperature in the water. Sounds and Vocal Behavior:


The Australasian Bittern is a vocal bird that produces a distinctive booming call.

The call is produced by the male bird during the breeding season to attract a mate and establish a territory. The sound is produced by the male bird inflating its esophagus, which then resonates like a hollow drum.

The booming call of the Australasian Bittern is a low-pitched, repetitive “oong-ka-chunk” sound that can be heard from a distance. The call is mainly produced at dawn and dusk and is often heard during still, calm weather conditions.

The call can be heard from up to one kilometer away and is one of the best ways to detect the presence of the species in an area. In addition to the booming call, the Australasian Bittern also produces other sounds, including a series of croaks and grunts.

These sounds are produced by both males and females and are thought to be used in communication between birds. The species is generally silent outside of the breeding season, but individuals may produce calls when disturbed or threatened.


The Australasian Bittern is a fascinating bird species that has several unique adaptations that allow it to survive in its wetland habitat. The bird’s specialized bill and slow metabolism help it capture prey and survive in conditions of low food availability, while its respiratory system and feathers allow it to regulate its body temperature and survive in the water.

The species also has a distinctive vocalization, including a characteristic booming call that is used to attract mates and establish territories during the breeding season. With these unique characteristics and behaviors, the Australasian Bittern remains an important and valuable species in its ecological niche.



The Australasian Bittern is a skilled flier that can travel long distances between wetlands when necessary. However, the species prefers to move on foot through its wetland habitat.

The bird moves slowly and stealthily, using its long legs to move through vegetation and water. When hunting, it may move very slowly through the water or stand motionless, waiting for prey to come close before striking.

Self Maintenance:

The Australasian Bittern is a very clean bird that spends a significant amount of time maintaining its feathers. The bird is known to preen itself frequently to keep its feathers clean and well-groomed, which helps in regulating body temperature.

Feather replacement allows the bird to maintain insulation properties against elements to ensure survival. Agonistic Behavior:

The Australasian Bittern is generally a solitary bird, but it can become territorial during the breeding season.

Males establish a breeding territory and may engage in agonistic behavior with other males to defend it. This behavior can involve displays like the baring of throat plumes, stretching necks skywards or beak jabbing, and can escalate to physical contact, but fights are usually quickly resolved.

Sexual Behavior:

The Australasian Bittern is a monogamous species, with a pair bond established during the breeding season. Males begin calling to attract a mate, and once a female has chosen a mate, they will form a pair bond.

The female will then select a nest site, and the pair will begin building the nest together. Males defend their territories and mates from other males while females may fend off females from sharing their territory.


The Australasian Bittern’s breeding season varies depending on its range and is closely tied to habitat conditions and water availability. It tends to breed during the cool, wet season, and breeding activity is higher during spring and early summer in Australia and SeptemberDecember in New Zealand.

The breeding pair constructs a nest made from grass and other vegetation, typically situated in dense reeds, rushes or sedges around shallow water. They can often build several nests side by side within their territory.

Once breeding has taken place and eggs are laid, the male bird will continue to call and maintain vigilance around the site. The Australasian Bittern is an altricial bird species, and the eggs will hatch in approximately three weeks.

Both male and female birds will participate in incubating the eggs, which will be well-hidden in the nesting vegetation to prevent predation. Demography and Populations:

The populations of the Australasian Bittern have undergone significant declines over recent decades.

Habitat degradation and loss have significantly impacted the species, leading some populations to become critically endangered. To address this issue, conservation efforts are underway to protect and restore wetland habitats across the species’ range.

These efforts include restoration and management of wetlands

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