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Marsh Birds part 1- A Secretive Bird and its Young.

August 11, 2011

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!

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27 Comments leave one →
  1. August 11, 2011 6:52 pm

    Okay, I have to save this one when I have some uninterrupted time. You may have enough for a book at the rate you are going Tracy! Wow!

  2. August 11, 2011 7:26 pm

    Very cool photos. I’ve never seen these babies before. Thanks for sharing!

  3. August 11, 2011 8:57 pm

    Tracy,
    These pictures are awesome! I’ve never seen a bird balancing itself between plants like that, I saw things in this blog I’ve never seen before. You’re right, the eyes are very striking and the ‘kids’ do look like they’re wearing fright wigs! LOL This was an incredible catch… I know it is so hard to get good pictures of birds, because they are always moving, trying to remain ‘off the radar’. I think they are wise to why a bird feeder suddenly appeared on my deck… LOL 🙂

    • August 13, 2011 10:52 pm

      Off the radar indeed, Robin! I have loads of terrible or missed pictures to prove it, hah!

  4. August 11, 2011 11:49 pm

    WOW. I’ve never seen a Least Bittern, they are SO shy and secretive, and these photos are just incredibly spectacular. WOW.

  5. August 12, 2011 2:24 am

    Awesome. Your photos, thoughts and content are just awesome. I agree with Margie, you should write a book. 🙂

  6. August 12, 2011 9:16 pm

    I also loved Honda Wetlands when I was there a couple of weeks ago. We actually caught one of the Least Bittern fly into a tree. However I was there for the King Rail which was a lifer for me.

  7. August 13, 2011 2:30 am

    I wish I have a Talent like yours. Capturing birds in motion is not easy, and the descriptive words makes it more real for the readers. Thank for a bringing nature close to us.

    • August 13, 2011 10:54 pm

      You’re welcome! Timing and luck has a good amount to do with it I believe- some days are much better than others.

  8. Gracie permalink
    August 13, 2011 9:48 am

    Amazing series of photos.

  9. August 13, 2011 12:37 pm

    Incredible photos – you captured some amazing moments and shots. 🙂

  10. August 13, 2011 1:10 pm

    Echoing everyone else, these are incredible photos. It must have been exciting to get such a great opportunity to photograph the whole family.

  11. August 13, 2011 5:11 pm

    Wow! Amazing captures. That must have been incredibly exciting for you. 🙂

  12. August 13, 2011 10:55 pm

    Thanks so much for the comments, everyone!

  13. August 13, 2011 11:55 pm

    Fantastic series of photos! You certainly took advantage of that opportunity! Don’t you love it when that happens!

  14. August 15, 2011 10:04 am

    Aah, yes…the old “swamp…wetlands…marsh…controversy…I know it well…great post W.S….

    And as usual, it made me reference something in my own experience…good writing does that you know…whether a birding experience or just something we read…in my case, what I read…

    My copy of “Birds & Blooms”, July 2011…article about “Wading Birds, page 38…and there, right there, a picture of a least bittern…huge feet, “so as not to sink in the cat-tails, my dear”…and the quote, that supports what you write, W.S….”moves slowly and steadily through the marshes. Birders say that they are more easily heard than seen.”…

    Great Post, W. S…love the pictures…

    • August 15, 2011 1:43 pm

      Thanks for mentioning the huge feet Jim, I forgot to talk about that!

      Birds & Blooms, I remember seeing some great photos in there 🙂

  15. September 5, 2011 5:40 pm

    Fantastic photos! Boy, would I love to have the 600 mm on these guys. Wonderful being in a place where you can get so close to these kinds of birds.

    • August 31, 2013 11:00 pm

      I was only using a 250mm lens but they were close enough, which surprised me greatly! 🙂

Trackbacks

  1. Marsh Birds part 2- Handsome Young Birds in the Marsh. « Seasons Flow
  2. Marsh Birds part 4- A Raucous Time in the Marsh! | Seasons Flow

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