Least Bittern

A Word About Marshes

This is first in a series of occasional posts about shorebirds seen in a wetlands habitat.  I’m calling them ‘marsh birds’ for simplicity’s sake- it’s easier to type out that way, and besides, it sounds sort of cool.  I’m reminded of a commenter on this blog who observed that when he was growing up poor, such areas were called swamps;  he thought that wetlands is sort of a gentrified term for the same terrain in a nicer place.  So I’m splitting the difference and using the word marsh.  Such a middle-class compromise approach!

Some of these birds can be seen in areas outside of marshes, such as riverbanks and the shores of lakes and ponds.  Some are normally quite difficult to see, and you will have to seek them out in marshy areas.  I’m very fortunate to be within reasonable driving distance of the Honda Wetlands in central Ohio, and so don’t be surprised if this place turns up again and again in this series of posts.  I’ve been going there every other week during this summer season, and happily I’ve got some photos to share.

And so- back to the Honda Wetlands!  Or is that the marsh…

Birdwatching Tip- It’s Hard to See, Until it Isn’t

Among the frequenters of the Honda Wetlands, there are certain birds that have a reputation for being shy and secretive.  “Have you seen (fill in the blank) this morning?” is not an uncommon question asked by newcomers to the early birding folks on the boardwalk or on the observation tower.  Few people ask for the old standbys that can be seen by casual observation, of course.  Perhaps they are looking for that uncommon or even rare bird reported on the Birding On The Net Ohio Listserv.

Many of these birds are by nature difficult to see.  It can be a dangerous world out there, and species often use natural camouflage patterns and certain behaviors, such as hiding in tall grass.  Marsh bird calls can be rather harsh and abrupt, startling those who haven’t heard them (like me for instance).  It is hard to describe the feeling of hearing a bird 30 feet away from you, hidden well by vast masses of cat-tails- and you never see the bird.

On the other hand, birds are also by nature adaptive to their current situation.  This might mean that a normally shy species may be out in the open due to a shrinking amount of water in the marsh, or perhaps they are used to being around 1 to 5 patiently-waiting non-threatening humans standing on the nearby boardwalk with cameras and binoculars ready.  Birds can fool you.  One visit I’ll hear about how hard it is to catch a glimpse of a certain bird; the next visit, said bird is walking through the shallow water 20 feet away from me in plain view.

All one can do is to chalk this up to: there are rules of thumb, and there are exceptions to rules of thumb.

Least Bittern

One bird is widely acknowledged to be a secretive sort at the Honda Wetlands- the Least BitternBitterns are shorebirds of the Heron family; they have shorter necks and are more retiring than the run-of-the-mill heron, however.  They enjoy hiding in cat-tails where they often grasp a stem in each foot, effectively standing on the foliage.  They eat such things as minnows and insects that they find in the marsh.

Until recently, this was the best picture I could get of a Least Bittern.

I say ‘until recently’, because last week I hit the bittern jackpot- I was in the right place at the right time when this Least Bittern decided humans weren’t so bad.  For a day, anyway.  Because this morning, it was back to its old secretive tricks.

A few of us birders were privileged to see this bird out in the relative open.  It wasn’t very far from us, either.  It still liked going into the cat-tails, and we’d discover why shortly.  Its eyes were quite striking.

When it would look my way head-on, I was reminded of a certain trick it will play when trying to hide.  It will stand in the cat-tails, neck stretched up and beak turned up to the sky; it will even sway with the cat-tails in the breeze to blend in with them well.

Suddenly, this fascinating bird flew into a patch of cat-tails not far from the boardwalk- and the reason why was immediately apparent.

Two juveniles were hungry, and their parent had some food to regurgitate into their throats.  This looks somewhat alarming at first glance, but it is totally normal for this type of bird.  Notice the other juvie looking on, waiting for its turn for a meal.  Everyone’s perched in the cat-tails.

Notice how the juvies are as big or even bigger than the adult- not an uncommon thing in the bird world.  These youngsters grow up fast!

With the feeding done, the parent flies off to find more for everyone to eat.  The juvies look cute, like they’re wearing fright wigs.

They swiftly retreated deeper into the cat-tails, hiding from potential predators.  They’ll need to fatten up for the autumn migration to Central America.  That’s a long way, but when they return- perhaps to this very location- they can confound another crop of birders.  Or even me once again.  Yet I have to admit that I feel fortunate to have been there that morning.  Thanks for the show!