Plants & Animals

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From Missouri Conservationist: March 2017

American Bittern

Bird watching in the spring is a popular activity in Missouri. The temperatures are warmer, and migratory birds are returning from their winter getaways. It’s a great time to grab your binoculars and head to your favorite conservation area where the landscape is filled with birds. But not all birds are easy to find, even with the aid of binoculars. Some are masters of disguise. I’m referring to the American bittern.

American bitterns (Botaurus lentiginosus) are a medium-sized species of wading birds in the heron family. They have thick compact bodies with shorter legs and thicker necks than typical herons and long, straight, sharply pointed bills. A streaky pattern on their neck helps them blend in with the reedy background of a marsh. The birds are mainly crepuscular, or mostly active at dawn and dusk. More often heard than seen, the male bittern has a loud, booming call especially during mating season.

I had my first encounter with an American bittern many years ago when I was searching for returning marsh birds in early April, which is usually when they migrate from the south. I was intrigued by their behavior and made several trips to marshes just to photograph them.

The stealthy bird usually moves slowly and carefully to conceal its movement.
With its neck stretched and bill pointed skyward, it can stay motionless for a long period of time, which makes finding this bird challenging.

However, on this April day, the bird’s bright yellow eyes, which tracked my every movement, gave its position away. Once I spotted it and stood still with my lens pointed at the bird, it was a game of patience. After a while, it began to sway its neck back and forth slowly and placed its feet carefully as it tried to determine if I was a threat or not, before resuming its search for food along the shallow marsh. These birds tend to forage in shallow marshes. Like other members of the heron family, the American bittern feeds in marshes and shallow ponds, preying mainly on fish and other aquatic life such as frogs, tadpoles, insects, crayfish, and even snakes. In some drier habitats, they will eat rodents and voles.

American bitterns have a wide distribution throughout North America, part of Central America, and the Caribbean Islands. During summer months, female birds lay three to five pale olive-brown eggs on nests in dense marsh growth above shallow water. The eggs hatch within 24–28 days. Young birds leave the nest after one to two weeks, but remain nearby and are fed up to four weeks. They become fully fledged after seven weeks. Only females care for the young, feeding them by regurgitation.

Finding American bitterns takes time, patience, and a little luck. Although they are secretive by nature and well-camouflaged, they are fairly numerous in Missouri, especially during spring migration from mid-March through May. Many wetlands on conservation areas offer excellent chances to view these birds. When visiting wetlands, scan the area slowly with your binoculars along the edge of reeds and open water. If it’s springtime, try to listen for their unmistakable, weird, pump-er-lunk call, too. Your chances of finding them will be greatly improved, and you might be rewarded with the sight of these elusive birds.

—Story and photograph by Noppadol Paothong

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This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler