Wednesday, June 3, 2009

American Bitterns – Groovy Little Herons

You just never know what will dash in front of your car up here in the Adirondacks. The other day I was driving towards civilization, cruising past a couple of marshlands, and a bittern flew across the road in front of me. The American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) is one of those really cool birds that few people get to see, thanks to its solitary nature and its stupendous blending capabilities.

A member of the heron family, the bittern stands about two feet tall. Like all herons, it has long skinny legs and a long, spear-like bill, which it puts to good use catching its prey. Chances are, if you see a bittern it will be busily hunting. Not that you can tell, for it will be standing stock still, waiting for food to come by. When a fish, frog, snake or yummy-looking insect gets too close, the bittern’s long neck snakes down quick as a flash and the unlucky food item is snared. After a killing bite, or a vicious shake, the food is swallowed head first.

If, however, the bittern sees you first, it will likely go into its blending act. Bitterns are denizens of wetlands (bogs, marshes, wet meadows), and they hang out where emergent vegetation is tall (cattails and bulrushes). When they feel slightly threatened, these small herons thrust their beaks straight up towards the sky, exposing their striped necks and breasts. Now, instead of seeing a bird-shaped thing, you see a collection of plant stems, for the stripes are tan and blend right in with all the surrounding vegetation. If you look closely, you may see the two bright yellow eyes peering back at you around the sides of the beak – a bizarre sight if ever there was one.

But the best (and strangest) thing about this bird, in my humble opinion, is its vocalizations. Pliny, that great philosopher of old, thought the bittern (that would be the Old World bittern, not the American bittern) sounded like the roar of a bull, which in Latin was/is Boatum taurus. From this we get the genus name of bitterns everywhere: Botaurus. I’ve listened to bittern calls, both recordings and in the wild, and to me they don’t sound at all like a bull. For me the sound brings to mind the soundtrack accompanying a slow motion drop of water hitting a pond. Others claim it sounds like congested plumbing. Some of the bittern’s additional common names are suggestive of the sound: thunder-pumper, mire-drum. In order to make these strange sounds, the bird’s throat/neck goes through some stunning contortions; a friend commented to me that when he witnessed this he thought for sure the bird would give itself whiplash. To hear the bittern’s call, follow this link http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Bittern/id and look down the left side of the website for the button that says “Typical Voice”; press play.

If you want to hear (or see) a bittern yourself, hie ye to a nearby wetland with tall emergent vegetation around dawn or dusk (take your bug shirt). Find yourself a comfortable spot near some cattails and water, and wait. If bitterns are around (and they are fairly common), you are bound to hear them “booming” before too long. If you are really lucky, you may even catch sight of one as you peer into the cattails. Beware; it might just be peering back at you.

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.





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