Black-backed Bittern

Ixobrychus dubius

Black-backed Bitterns are small, well camouflaged bitterns, adept at hiding in reedbeds. Many birders have never seen one. Their presence may be detected by a low, monotonous croak, and then watching for the birds making low flights over the reedbeds, or perching low on reed lined pools.

Black-backed Bitterns feed on crustaceans, aquatic insects, tadpoles, and small fish. They forage by standing and waiting at the water’s edge, or perched on emergent vegetation, then stabbing.

Black-backed Bitterns breed from mid-October to late January. Typically, they breed as solitary pairs. The nest is flimsy platform of fine twigs and grasses with a shallow saucer-shaped hollow on top, built on a low horizontal or sloping tree branch near water. A single clutch of 3 to 5 bluish-green eggs is laid each season.

Black-backed Bitterns are monotypic, having no subspecies. They are rated as ENDANGERED in South Australia.

Other names: Australian Little Bittern


The adult male has a glossy back crown, mantle and tail, and has a reddish-brown nape. The wings are dark with large pale buff patches on the coverts. The throat is a warm buff, while breast and flanks are white with dark and pale brown streaks. The belly and vent are pure white. The female is like the male except that she has brown patches where he has black patches. Her underparts are also more streaked. The upperparts of juveniles are not a solid brown or black, but are heavily streaked. The bill, iris, legs and feet are yellow.

Where to find it

Black-backed Bitterns are rare on the Adelaide plains, the Murray Mallee (Murray river and lower lakes) and the South East of South Australia and may be encountered as vagrants in suitable habitats elsewhere. They favour reedbeds, and well-fringed freshwater swamps and water courses. They tend to leave South Australia in summer as smaller wetlands dry out, returning in late August.