Ian’s Bird of the Week – American Bittern ~ by Ian Montgomery
Newsletter – 9/14/2010
Lightning, they say, doesn’t strike the same place twice. Luck, in bird photography, is rather similar: a missed opportunity usually remains just that. High on my list of American targets was the American Bittern, a cryptic and elusive bird of inaccessible reed beds that had successfully eluded me since I first did some serious birding in the USA exactly forty years ago. Imagine my delight and disappointment when I finally flushed one from reeds on the Feather River at Lake Almanor in NE California last Sunday but wasn’t quick enough to get a photo of it as if flew off. I found it in the viewfinder okay, but the autofocus didn’t as often happens when it gets distracted by a complex background.
Yesterday, two days later, at Sierra Valley in the Sierra Nevada (‘Snowy Mountains’) I saw a large bird flying towards and past me across more reeds and decided to photograph it even before I realized that it was another Bittern, see the first photo. Shortly later, another more distant one flew past and then I found a couple more lurking in the dwindling area of wetland remaining at the end of a dry summer. Eventually, I startled one in a ditch beside the road which froze in indecision (if in doubt, freeze, is a Bittern maxim) frustratingly close but on the other side of an unpicturesque barbed wire fence.
Then started a waiting game with an endlessly patient opponent that I was bound to loose. Eventually, I moved along the road away from it in the hope that it would come through the fence to regain the sanctuary of the ditch. In time, it did just that and quite stealthily, second photo. Bitterns are bizarre birds in appearance and behaviour, with extraordinarily effective camouflage and very beautiful plumage. When it had entered a small patch of reeds not much bigger than itself, it vanished, and search as I could with binoculars from a short distant, I never saw it again.
To do the plumage justice, I’ve included cropped enlargements of a couple of photos taken when the bird was behind the barbed wire. The fourth photo shows the gorgeous long neck feathers that drape over the breast and the exquisitely patterned feathers of the wing coverts.
Worldwide, there are four closely-related species of large Bitterns, one in North America, one in South America, one in Eurasia and Africa and one in Australasia. All have declined in population, but only the Australasian one is classed as endangered. All live in reed beds, all are mainly nocturnal, skulkers and easier to hear than see, particularly in the breeding season when they emit far-carrying booming sounds: presumably, they find each other easier to hear than see.
On an almost totally unrelated subject, Birds Australian North Queensland has had a request from an Australian, Carolyne Hepi, living in a remote area of Papua New Guinea to support the local school by buying their 2011 Birds of Papua calendar, price 20 Australian Dollars. I think it is a great idea. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org and, if you want more information, I’ll make a copy of the pdf she sent us (size 3.8MB) available on the Birdway website.
Thanks, Ian, for another great birdwatching adventure for us to read about. Saw an American Bittern in Texas in early 2000 and they are hard to capture in binoculars let alone get a decent photo of them. Great job!
Bitterns are in the Ardeidae- Herons, Bitterns Family which has 14 species world-wide. Also check out Ian’s Ardeidae family photos. The Bitterns are part of the Pelicaniformes Order and are mentioned as a Bird of the Bible.
I will also make it a possession for the bittern, and pools of water: and I will sweep it with the besom(broom) of destruction, saith the LORD of hosts. (Isa 14:23)