American bittern reminds us of wonders that hide in plain sight

Because they need their food to come to them, American bitterns are reliant on healthy wetlands that produce abundant biological life. The loss of large emergent wetlands has had a significant impact on them. (Sallie Gentry / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

“I still don’t see it.”

We had been birding for about an hour at Maryland’s Patuxent Research Refuge when Pat spotted the heronlike bird hidden in the tall reeds. She directed me to it, but the bird’s camouflage coloring had me stumped.

“It’s just to the left of halfway between those two dead trees,” she explained.

Another 15 seconds of frustration passed, then a delighted, “I see it!”

Finding an American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) is challenging even when a friend is telling you where to look. The bird is a master of disguise.

Bitterns are medium-size brown-and-white herons. They stand 2 feet tall and have a wingspan that exceeds 3 feet. The difficulty in finding them is not their size but rather their superbly cryptic colors and that they often stand motionless for long periods.

Viewed from the front, bitterns show bold vertically streaked chests and bodies of rufous brown against a dingy white background. They have brown heads with darker brown caps. Thin white eyebrows arch over yellow eyes. A malar streak, the bird’s “moustache,” is another streaky element.

The bill is long and heavy with a sharp tip, but its combination of yellow and gray adds to the subtle presentation. The short legs are yellow-to-greenish, as are the feet.

From behind, all you see are brown upper parts flecked with black.

To make matters even more challenging, bitterns are most active at dusk. And if startled, they point their bills skyward and sway gently, perfectly mimicking the wind-tossed reeds around them.

The sexes look alike.

The easiest way to find bitterns is to listen for them in the spring. As part of his efforts to establish territory and attract a mate, the male bittern emits a bizarre, loud vocalization. A deep, resonant “pump-a-lunk” is issued on the breeding ground. The sound is made by gulping air to inflate the throat and then swallowing the air and instantly expelling it. The sound is reminiscent of an old-fashioned hand water pump is the inspiration for one of the bird’s folk names: thunder pumper.

Bitterns are relatively common in the right kind of freshwater — rarely saline — marsh. They prefer big bodies of water — more than 10 acres — with lots of tall emergent vegetation like cattails, and plenty of shallow water where they can feed.

They range from the northern half of the United States up to northern Canada during the breeding season. As the cooler weather advances, the birds retreat to their wintering grounds. In the East, that means the Atlantic Coast from the Chesapeake south to Florida and across the entire Gulf Coast. In the West, the American bittern winters along the Pacific Coast from British Columbia to Mexico and into Central America.

The bittern we were watching — now that I found it! — was standing stock still, with its thick neck slightly extended and its head held horizontal. If I had had my spotting scope, I might have been able to see the bird’s downcast eyes, focused slightly inward. The rather comical look of a cross-eyed heron was purely functional, as the heron looked for the tiny movements of its prey.

When a bittern sees a tadpole swimming below, the bird starts to lower its head imperceptibly while swaying slightly side-to-side. Then a lightning strike from that ferocious bill captures or kills the unsuspecting prey!

American bitterns eat all manner of aquatic food, from fish and frogs to crayfish and carp. They eat lots of insects and the occasional snake or vole.

Because they need the food to come to them, bitterns are reliant on healthy wetlands that produce abundant biological life. The loss of large emergent wetlands has had a significant impact on this species. The massive decline of these specialized ecosystems has mostly been stemmed by regulations dating to the George H. W. Bush administration. Unfortunately, and perhaps lethally, the new administration is looking to roll back wetland definitions, overturning decades of scientific research.

Females appear to do all of the work of raising new birds. They build the nest among reeds, lay and incubate the eggs, feed the nestlings and provide protection.

I lowered my binoculars to scan the marsh for other birds, but soon was back for another look. It only took a few seconds to locate the bird again.

Our brains are wired to recognize patterns. Now that I had a firm visual image of the bittern, seeing that pattern again was easy.

The American bittern had been hiding in plain sight. There was nothing impeding my view except my failure of recognition. There was a larger truth in that, I reflected, thinking of all of the times I have failed to recognize an unfamiliar yet distinct pattern. Broadening my experiences, visual and otherwise, helps to bring new patterns into focus.

Time for new experiences, I thought. The delightful shock of recognition awaits.

Mike Burke, a Bay Journal columnist, is an amateur naturalist based in Maryland, having retired from a career that toggled between Capitol Hill and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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