ORNITHOLOGISTS are to conduct an investigation to determine whether a secretive bird that became extinct in Ireland more than 150 years ago has returned and started breeding here again.
The bittern, a rare member of the heron family that is famous for its booming call, died out in Ireland in the mid-19th century.
But in late December, at least three of the well-camouflaged birds were spotted at Lake Tacumshane in south Co Wexford, seeking refuge from the bitter cold snap in continental Europe.
In the last week two more sightings of the brown-coloured bird in flight on consecutive days in the same area have been reported.
Experts, excited at the growing evidence of the shy bird's permanent return to Ireland, say they will be able to determine by spring whether it has started breeding here again.
Niall Hatch, development officer with Birdwatch Ireland, said: "We were very excited when we first heard that the bittern had returned here in late December, because they became extinct in Ireland about 150 years ago.
"The breeding season begins in May and around that time we will be going down to Lake Tacumshane to try and find out definitively if they have started breeding here again. If we find out they are, it will be one of the most exciting developments in a long time."
Ornithologists believe the bitterns first returned here in December, seeking refuge from the freezing temperatures in France and ended up in Ireland because it was the last-ditch westerly land mass for them to escape to.