Photographed in Shoveler's Pond in Anahuac NWR
The furtive Least Bittern is often little more than a voice in the reeds that is frustratingly difficult to locate. But these diminutive herons reward patience and will charm birders persistent enough to discover them in their wetland haunts. They’re smartly clad in chestnut, buff, and black, with the male more richly colored than the female. Although drainage and development of wetlands has reduced their populations, Least Bitterns persist over much of their historical range, and are most readily seen during the breeding season.
When alarmed, the Least Bittern freezes in place with its bill pointing up, turns both eyes toward the source of alarm, and sometimes sways to resemble windblown marsh vegetation.
Perhaps surprisingly, tiny Least Bitterns use areas with deeper water than the much larger, longer-legged American Bittern. Least Bitterns can do this because their long, agile toes and curved claws allow them to grasp reeds and hunt small prey while suspended from these precarious over-water perches.
John James Audubon noted that a young captive Least Bittern was able to walk with ease in a 1.5-inch gap between two books, even though the bird's body normally measured 2.25 inches across—indicating that it could compress its body to an extraordinary degree to squeeze between marsh stems and reeds.
A very rare dark form of Least Bittern, known as “Cory’s Least Bittern,” was once considered a separate species. With a black bill, entirely black back, and rich chestnut cheeks, belly, and wing coverts, this distinctive bird was highly prized by bird “collectors” as soon as it was discovered in Florida in 1885. Cory’s Least Bitterns were seen frequently around the Great Lakes, especially around Toronto, in the late 1800s, before its favored marshes were destroyed. Only 7 or 8 records of this mysterious bird are known worldwide since 1973.
As in many other small herons, Least Bittern’s loral area (between bill and eye) is unfeathered, and this skin can change colors, depending on what the bird is doing. During courtship, copulation, or territorial conflict, the normally yellowish skin can flush brilliant cherry red in males—a sight worth watching for in spring and summer.
In some brackish marshes, notably in South Carolina, Least Bitterns may nest close to colonies of Boat-tailed Grackles, which typically choose areas without ground predators. The grackles also aggressively chase or mob hawks and gulls, another advantage for the bitterns.
Least Bitterns occasionally turn up far away from their usual range and habitat. In September 2007, for instance, a migrant was found at Vila do Porto, Azores, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Researchers tracked breeding Least Bitterns in western New York and found the birds used about 24 acres while feeding themselves and their offspring—about the area of 10 city blocks.
Photographed in Rockport, Texas about two weeks ago.
Loyd Dalton and I drove down to Rockport leaving at 3:30 am arriving in time for sunrise photos and then a trip to this Great Blue Heron rookery. It's really the first one I've ever seen and photographed.
Whether poised at a river bend or cruising the coastline with slow, deep wingbeats, the Great Blue Heron is a majestic sight. This stately heron with its subtle blue-gray plumage often stands motionless as it scans for prey or wades belly deep with long, deliberate steps. They may move slowly, but Great Blue Herons can strike like lightning to grab a fish or snap up a gopher. In flight, look for this widespread heron’s tucked-in neck and long legs trailing out behind.
Despite their impressive size, Great Blue Herons weigh only 5 to 6 pounds thanks in part to their hollow bones—a feature all birds share.
Great Blue Herons in the northeastern U.S. and southern Canada have benefited from the recovery of beaver populations, which have created a patchwork of swamps and meadows well-suited to foraging and nesting.
Along the Pacific coast, it’s not unusual to see a Great Blue Heron poised atop a floating bed of kelp waiting for a meal to swim by.
The white form of the Great Blue Heron, known as the "great white heron," is found nearly exclusively in shallow marine waters along the coast of very southern Florida, the Yucatan Peninsula, and in the Caribbean. Where the dark and white forms overlap in Florida, intermediate birds known as "Wurdemann's herons" can be found. They have the body of a Great Blue Heron, but the white head and neck of the great white heron.
Great Blue Herons have specialized feathers on their chest that continually grow and fray. The herons comb this “powder down” with a fringed claw on their middle toes, using the down like a washcloth to remove fish slime and other oils from their feathers as they preen. Applying the powder to their underparts protects their feathers against the slime and oils of swamps.
Great Blue Herons can hunt day and night thanks to a high percentage of rod-type photoreceptors in their eyes that improve their night vision.
Great Blue Herons congregate at fish hatcheries, creating potential problems for the fish farmers. A study found that herons ate mostly diseased fish that would have died shortly anyway. Sick fish spent more time near the surface of the water where they were more vulnerable to the herons.
You'll need sharp eyes to catch sight of an American Bittern. This streaky, brown and buff heron can materialize among the reeds, and disappear as quickly, especially when striking a concealment pose with neck stretched and bill pointed skyward. These stealthy carnivores stand motionless amid tall marsh vegetation, or patiently stalk fish, frogs, and insects. They are at their most noticeable in spring, when the marshes resound with their odd booming calls that sounds like the gulps of a thirsty giant.
American Bitterns are heard more often than seen. Their booming, clacking, gulping calls have earned them some colorful nicknames, including "stake-driver," "thunder-pumper," "water-belcher," and "mire-drum."
When field scientists want to trap American Bitterns for study, they take advantage of the males' aggressive territoriality. Knowing that the birds will respond to other males' calls from as far as 1,600 feet away, or to the image of another male, the researchers use recorded calls and mirrors to draw the birds in.
The American Bittern's yellow eyes can focus downward, giving the bird's face a comically startled, cross-eyed appearance. This visual orientation presumably enhances the bird's ability to spot and capture prey. The eyes turn orange during breeding season.