He prefers solitude, and leads the eccentric life of a recluse, “forgetting the world, and by the world forgot.” To see him at his ordinary occupation, one might fancy him shouldering some heavy responsibility, oppressed with a secret, or laboring in the solution of a problem of vital consequence. He stands motionless, with his head drawn in upon his shoulders, and half-closed eyes, in profound meditation, or steps about in a devious way,
~Elliott Coues, describing an American Bittern,1874
One of my highlights of any winter trip to Mattamuskeet NWR is the sighting of a most unusual denizen of the marsh, the American bittern, Botaurus lentiginosus. This is a bird ideally adapted to its surroundings.
They can be fairly reliable at the refuge this time of year if you look long enough in the right places. This past trip we managed to see at least 5 individuals, including a couple that flushed from grasses along a canal at Pungo, where they are generally much harder to locate. They are easiest to see when they are feeding right along the edge of the marsh next to the road. I think most people are looking farther out at the numerous waterfowl in the impoundment, and manage to drive by the secretive bitterns without ever seeing one.
I usually coach my participants to look for a clump of grass with eyes and a beak – that’s your bittern. On my last trip, while driving along the road that skirts the northwest shore of Lake Mattamuskeet, I spotted a dark shape in marsh grass next to the road. I shouted, “bittern”, to my group, brought the car to a stop, looked for traffic in my rear view mirror, and then backed up about fifty feet, hoping I was right. I pulled up next to the bird, and I noticed no one said anything, so I said, “right there, next to the car”. Indeed, it was a bittern, and not a bittern-shaped log. Everyone but me ( I was watching for cars) got some great shots, as the light was perfect, and the bittern assumed its upright posture that makes it blend so well with the surrounding grasses. Driving on, we found another near the refuge entrance kiosk. I saw in the wildlife observation notebook at the Visitor Center that someone had spotted the much less common least bittern in this same area the week before. We continued along Wildlife Drive and spotted another American bittern in thick grasses next to the road. This one allowed us to exit the vehicle and watch it for about thirty minutes, as it skulked along, appearing and disappearing among the waves of wind-flattened grasses.
They are very deliberate mash stalkers, slowly, yet smoothly, gliding through grasses looking for their favorite prey.
I have seen them eat a variety of food from small fish to tadpoles, large aquatic insects, and even a baby painted turtle.
They can be a tough subject to photograph, as they usually are found in, or quickly retreat to, thick vegetation. A quick look at their feathers and you can see why – they blend very well with grass stalks in a marsh.
When they think they have been discovered by a photographer (or potential predator), they often assume an upright stance, pointing their bill skyward. This behavior has given rise to a few of their other common names such as sky-gazer, look-up, and stake-bird. To complete the disguise, if a light breeze blows through the grasses, a bittern will gently sway back and forth, imitating the movement of its surroundings.
A couple of years ago, I reported about finally hearing the strange mating call that has given this unusual bird a host of other odd-sounding names like thunder pumper, water-belcher, and stake-driver. The sound reminds me of the noise the bubbles make when someone draws a glass of water from from the office water cooler. This is accompanied by an impressive visual display that includes lots of head bobbing, neck puffing, and beak thrusting. All in all, the American bittern is a treat anytime you encounter one. Just keep looking at those marsh grasses until you see a clump staring back at you.