“Hide and seek in America’s wetlands” is somewhat an understatement with the bittern, as a visual opportunity will most likely present itself as “Now you see me and now you don’t” or you may not see me at all! Like the elusive Rails, Bittern’s are secretive birds… This is not to say the chance of observing and/or photographing a member of the bittern family is impossible. Both the American and Least bittern are covert, stealthy and blend well into their surroundings. Their movements are smooth and precise while stalking prey in the wetland grasses and reeds. Most common sightings of these secretive birds usually occur during their flight from one location to another.
Another way of locating a bittern is by sound, although I tend to find the American bittern not as vocal as the Least. During the early spring, I had read reports of a “vocalizing” Least bittern at the Union Mills Wetland located in northern Carroll County Maryland, very close to my home. I visited the area numerous times during the dawn and late evening hours and heard the vocalizations on several occasions, but without catching a glimpse of the bird. I even tried a short duration of a recorded playback during one visit to no avail. The bird would answer, but he was perfectly happy with his well concealed location.
On another occasion, good friend and fellow photographer Larry Hitchens had located a Least bittern skulking in the grasses near the shoreline of the Bear Swamp Pool at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge near Smyrna Delaware. Once he located the bird, Larry gave me a call on my cell phone to notify me of his find. We met up and both sat and photographed the bird for over an hour while other refuge visitors and photographers drove by without a notice that the bird was there. “They do blend right into their surroundings with their brownish streaked camouflage”; and if not for Larry’s “eagle eye”, I would have most likely missed the bird entirely .
We were amused at the passer-by’s because normally if you stop and point a lens at something; for the sake of curiosity, most folks will usually make it a point to stop to see what you are photographing or observing. “This by the way drives Larry nuts…..” I can see his frustration though, because after spending a lot of time searching for those special opportunities, having a social gathering show up and spook the subject and cause it to retreat and hide can be rather annoying and has happened on more than one occasion in the past. National Wildlife Refuges on the east coast can be wonderful places to visit on weekdays, but the weekends draw crowds and we both tend to avoid these popular public areas and look for remote back roads and “off the beaten path” locations to enjoy our photographic adventures
Finding a bittern can happen quite by accident as well! I had completed one pass around Wildlife Drive at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County Maryland and decided to stop for a break and a snack before my second loop. I took a spur off the drive towards an observation area, parked and was sitting and enjoying a sandwich when an American bittern flew out of the grass and landed not more than 15 feet from my vehicle on the black-top surface of the road. (Pictured left) Perhaps he was into peanut butter and grape jelly and wanted a bite? But without a care in the world; and regardless of the fact that I was sitting there, he just strutted around and let me photograph him for about ten minutes and then off he flew not to be seen again… This was the one and only American bittern I have seen, more less photographed on the east coast. I know they are here, but like with many of my “nemesis birds”, I often suffer from not being at the right place at the right time, or perhaps I need to have old “eagle eye” along more often.
Texas has been good to me allowing numerous opportunities to view and photograph both bittern species. There is hardly a year I can recall that I didn’t see at least a half-dozen of them during our springtime pilgrimages. But the ratio of American bittern sightings to that of the Least bittern is still about 1 in 5. However during the past year, the American bittern had unexpectedly taken the prize with more finds.
The American Bittern
I can vividly remember my first encounter with an American bittern, and the event took place at the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge in Chambers County Texas, just a twenty-minute drive from our residence during our visits home. It happened along the Shovelers Pond loop near the entrance to the boardwalk. The bird actually startled me at first glance as I had no idea what this strange large streaked thing was! It was skulking in the grass with a crayfish in its bill. (Pictured below) ) These are not the best of images due to extreme back-lighting, but I felt the encounter was worth taking a chance with the camera.
Unlike the Least bittern, I rarely find the American bittern along the popular Shovelers Pond loop, but more often along the gravel routes and sloughs that lead to the remote Galveston Bay boat launch and Frozen Point. As I noted above, it’s quite easy to drive right past them without a notice of their presence.
On September 13th, 2008, Hurricane Ike devastated the Texas coast and all but destroyed the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge with what was recorded as a 22 foot storm surge in the Galveston area that sent flooding salt-water miles inland. But with the infamous Texas resilience and persistence of the refuge staff and hundreds of volunteers, the refuge has made a comeback to a somewhat normal existence and is getting better as time passes. To have seen the refuge shortly after Ike and to see it today, is what one would have thought impossible.
Two more Texas favorites are members of the Texas Mid-Coast Refuge Complex and include the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge located in Brazoria County, just east of the towns of Freeport and Surfside and the San Bernard Wildlife Refuge, west of the town of Lake Jackson, and sharing acreage within both Brazoria and Matagorda counties. Both refuges allow ample opportunities to view both bittern species on a regular basis.
Between the two, the San Bernard refuge is my favorite simply due to its diversity and the lack of “human kind” during most of my visits. Even a weekend day can be spent in somewhat solitude, especially during the early morning hours. You can pretty much “bank” on spotting one if not several American bitterns along the 3-mile Moccasin Pond Loop which is included as part of the 8-mile Cocklebur Slough Auto Tour.
Moccasin Pond holds smorgasbord of wading birds throughout the year along with a few very large alligators so keeping your distance from the water’s edge is highly advisable at all times. The pond didn’t get its name by accident either as venomous snakes are routinely present as well. I have had my encounters with both snakes and alligators at this refuge with the latter projecting itself as a rather scary and “rude awakening” one early morning trying to get closer to an American Bittern near the pond shoreline. The alligator did nothing wrong, as he was just “doing his thing” looking for food; and I wanted no part of becoming his breakfast. He was a “big fella”; every-bit of 12 feet in length, if not more!
I have found most of the American bitterns at the beginning of the Moccasin pond, near its narrowest point and then a hundred yards or so beyond. However, you may encounter this species anywhere along the length of the pond. Dawn and dusk are prime times for viewing, but the best light for photography is during the morning hours due to the angle of the sun. A nice bright overcast can be wonderful and offer a full day of photography, less the harsh light and back-lighting of sun-lit days after the morning hours.
The Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge can be productive for both bittern species, but if my memory serves me correctly, the Least bittern seems to be “king of the hill’ and the most prevalent. Unlike the San Bernard refuge, Brazoria tends to see more visitors along with outdoor education aimed at school children. I have noted many “outdoor classrooms” during my weekday visits over the past years and this is a wonderful thing! It’s enlightening to see youngsters exploring the great outdoors instead of having their eyes glued to a video game.
However, as with San Bernard, early morning visits can be rewarded with lovely solitude and be shared alone with nature during its finest hours! The Big Slough Auto Tour provides access to many areas along unimproved roads throughout a variety of habitats from coastal prairie to marsh. Both bittern species can be found anywhere along the Big Slough and refuge freshwater ponds. Pictured below is a Brazoria American Bittern with a “catch of the day”
A Brief American Bittern Biology
The American Bittern is a member of the family ARDEIDAE which contains the groups; Herons, Bitterns and Egrets; and follows the species order Ciconiiformes. My encounters with the American bittern have been a “single bird only” experience and birding resources list the bird as “almost always solitary and can be difficult to see”…. The American bittern is “subjectively” migratory, where as the birds in the more northern reaches of their territories and where the water will freeze, become strongly migratory; and birds farther south in more tempered climates, will remain all year-long.
The preferred breeding habitat of the American bittern includes fresh-water marshes with tall vegetation. During the winter months they can be occasionally found in brackish marshes near the coast and managed areas such as wildlife refuges tend to be favored. They forage upon insects , fish, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals.
Unlike most wading birds that “flush” when approached or threatened; the American bittern will freeze in its place or hunker down until the danger has passed. Disturbances by the boating public and acid precipitation degrading watery habitats of sensitive marine life are both potential threats to the population, but the most significant threat is habitat loss due to our vanishing wetlands. The population has declined throughout much of the United States.
The Least Bittern
“To say the Least” (pun intended) bittern is an easy bird to find, even as common as the species may be, would be stretching the truth on my part; although I have experienced many encounters with this species. I previously mentioned my latest attempt here near my home and within the Union Mills Wetland in Carroll County Maryland was a total bust. This tiny member of the heron family is by far a master of visual deception through its ability to “blend in” with its surroundings and like the American bittern; will freeze in its place at the hint of danger or presence of any approaching intruders.
It requires a keen eye and knowledge of the bird’s preference of habitat to begin looking for this species and then a lot of patience as well! Many of the “refuge racers” looking for the obvious avian standouts will pass them by more often than not and its fine with me as it is usually to my benefit.
“Refuge Racer” is a pet name of sort that I use loosely to describe visitors that travel the refuge roadways a little too fast to fully enjoy all the area has to offer.
The image above was captured during a previously mentioned outing with friend Larry Hitchens at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. Bombay Hook , along with other federal and state refuges, and wildlife management areas in Delaware, are excellent locations to seek and find the least bittern. At Bombay Hook, the Shearness Pool and Bear Swamp Pool are good starting points to explore for the least bittern. Look for the thickest patches of reeds along the water’s edge and observe closely for a few extra moments for any unusual movement in the grasses and reeds. If you spot a somewhat darker spot in the vegetation you might just discover this little guy. Sometimes they can be found out in the open along the water’s edge, especially just around dawn and in the late evening.
The Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge in Texas has been my “hot-spot” for the Least bittern in the past, especially before Hurricane Ike and the most recent “human kind” improvements and the paving of the Shovelers Pond loop. However, now with most of the construction complete, the refuge offers excellent opportunities to observe and photograph this species.
The refuge vegetation is recovering well from the past salt-water contamination and once again creating prime bittern habitat for both species. The image segments above, which I have titled “Gone Fishing”, were captured along the Shovelers Pond loop during the early spring and prior to the hurricane’s devastation.
Other productive areas around the Anahuac refuge include the fresh-water ditches and sloughs along Cross Road and West Line Road (leading to a remote bay boat launch) and Frozen Point Road. Just look for swathes of thicker vegetation and reeds. The image below was captured at the junction of Cross Road and West Line Road. This Least bittern was in his full breeding plumage. Again, all of these routes may offer opportunities for both species so look carefully and drive very slowly.
Anahuac’s Skillern tract is also a good candidate for both bittern species.
Again I have to give credit to the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge for excellent opportunities for both bittern species and some of my better Least bittern “portraits”. Both species can be found almost anywhere along the tour routes with freshwater ditches, ponds and sloughs; and tall patches of vegetation critical for concealment. One of the better areas to look for the Least at the San Bernard refuge is near the end of the Moccasin pond where the road makes the first 90 degree left turn. Here you will find a narrow slough with tall reeds and grasses providing ideal bittern habitat. The image below was photographed at the beginning of the Moccasin pond and just several yards away from an American Bittern.
The final images of the Least bittern below were captured at the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge along the main tour route and near the narrower sections of the ponds with the tallest vegetation. Brazoria has numerous areas like this; too many to list. Unlike the solitude of San Bernard, Brazoria can become quite busy with visitors on nice spring days so an early dawn arrival is best for finding this bird in the open. You still have to travel slowly and look closely to observe them; a point I can’t stress enough.
Sometime we get lucky and the light is just right with a warm morning glow; and your subject participates and poses in his most flattering manner. (Below) I never grow tired of photographing the bittern species; no matter how many images I have archived away…….
A Brief Least Bittern Biology
As the smallest member of the heron group, and the family ARDEIDAE; and the species order Ciconiiformes, the Least Bittern breeds throughout much of the central and eastern United States; with the exception of the Appalachian Mountains. However, I have read or heard of sightings in some of the foot-hill wetland areas.
Its preferred breeding habitat includes dense fresh-water wetlands and brackish marshes that support cattails, tall grasses, reeds and clumps of woody plants over deep water providing thick cover. The Least bittern and American bittern can often be found occupying the same wetland area, but experience little interaction because of foraging differences, preferred prey, and breeding cycles. Unlike the American bittern that prefers the shallower marsh and wetland areas, the Least bittern is perfectly at home in the deeper wetlands because of its ability to straddle reeds; and can feed in water that would be too deep for the wading habits of other herons.
The Least bittern may be hard to find but is not rare by any means with up to 15 nests per hectare. The nest consists of an elevated platform housing an overhead canopy, and is built of emergent aquatic vegetation and sticks. Males and females appear to help equally in rearing the young.
An interesting fact from the Cornell website is that John James Audubon once noted that a young captive Least Bittern was able to walk with ease between two books standing 1.5 inches (4 cm) apart. When dead, the bird’s body measured 2.25 inches (5.7 cm) across, indicating that it could compress its breadth to an extraordinary degree.
The Least Bittern was first described in 1789 by Johann Friedrich Gmelin, a German naturalist, botanist and entomologist.