Where do I begin to describe this odd bird ?
The American Bittern is in the heron family and is approximately the size of a medium heron. (larger than a green heron, smaller than a great blue) They sport a long neck, vertical brown stripes and a pointed “dagger-like” bill. Their wings are broad, though the tips are pointed.
Even as their population is declining they are listed as having the status of least concern. I’ve been looking for this bird since I first heard of it last year. I even made a trip down to Ridgefield NWR in hopes of seeing one down there. No luck.
It’s really no wonder I haven’t seen one. They are well camouflaged in marshy areas and tend to strike a concealment pose when alarmed. To witness this, you would see the beak pointing straight up and the eyes dropping down. Their vertical stripes helping to hide them in the reeds.
They are stealth predators, standing motionless while they hunt for fish, frogs, snakes and insects. They breed in freshwater marshes in spring and they winter in brackish areas and shallow wetlands. During breeding season their bright yellow eyes turn orange. I have no idea why.
The most bizarre feature of the bittern is it’s call. Nicknamed the “water-belcher” their booming call has been described by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as “the gulp of a thirsty giant”. I could spend a lot of time trying to describe the call, but it’s something you really HAVE to hear for yourself.
Watching a bittern calling out is almost as bizarre as hearing it. It looks as if he is stretching his throat out in a motion that resembles a convulsion or a full-body gag. I watch the video and can imagine it’s body separating into two separate parts. “Glug-glug” “Pump-er-lunk”. It’s wild ! They are especially loud during breeding season and when foraging at dawn and dusk to identify their presence to others.
Here’s a short video with great audio.
Fun facts: a group of bitterns is called a “sedge”. The oldest recorded American bittern was a tagged bird, and estimated to be over 8 years old.
Without binoculars or a zoom lens, you might never see one of these birds even if you hear it’s unusual call. This one made it onto my “Birders Life List”. The photos are all my own, taken at Nisqually NWR on Feb 10/2021. Knowing the location of a recent sighting, I was fortunate to find this bird sneaking along the bank.
Any suggestions for next week’s feature ?
Thanks for joining me here. If I ever miss something important or get something wrong, please leave a comment. I’m all about learning right now. Thanks for reading.