Sunday, February 3, 2008

American Bittern--Botaurus lentiginosus--A Rare Bird

American Bittern courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service.

I have seen an American Bittern once. It was while birding at El Dorado Nature Center in Long Beach, California on 11/24/2008--it's written in my field guide. My best friend Gloria, my husband at the time, and I went to El Dorado Nature Center. My friend Gloria and I wanted to see as many birds as we could and scanned the areas around the paths for birds. My ex wanted to see the most unusual bird there and set out to carefully examine every likely place the American Bittern might be hiding. Since it has markings that look like marsh reeds and grasses, and freezes with its bill pointed upward also looking like a reed, it is perfectly camouflaged. A very hard bird to spot. It is active from dusk to dawn. We went early and were the first ones through, and sure enough, he spotted an American Bittern. My ex was kind enough to point it out as we had pointed out the Black-crowned Night Herons, the Green Heron, a "Common Egret"--now a Great Egret--the Loggerhead Shrike, and all the other birds Gloria and I spotted and identified that day. But the prize went to Ross who carefully examined every marshy area until he found an American Bittern. Thanks to him, we saw it, too. It was in the reeds, striking that beak-in-the-air pose. It was something to see.

American Bittern courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The American Bittern is in the same family as Herons and Egrets. It is sometimes referred to as a heron. It has a long, relatively thick neck for a heron and a long, powerful bill. It has long, brown patterned markings on its thick, long neck that allow it to easily blend in with reeds and grasses in marshes and wetlands. It is such a successful camouflage that most people miss it as we almost did. The camouflage is great for the secretive American Bittern, but sad for those of us who want to see the long-necked bird. The best clue that it is near is the pump-like sound described variously as "glunk-a-chunk," "oonck-a-tsoonck" (Golden Field Guide to North American Birds), "bloonk-adoonk" (Sibley), "pump-er-lunk" (Audubon Guide to North American Birds) "oonk-a-lunk" (National Geographic Guide to North American Birds), "pump-er-wink"(State of Connecticut site), "oong-ka-choonk" (Cornell's All About Birds). It sounds very guttural and almost mechanical--like a pump or the thud of a stake being hit. If you are in a marsh or wetlands and hear that sound, look carefully among the reeds. You may have to move closer because the American Bittern's voice carries some distance. Check out the Nancy Today video below and hear her imitation of the American Bittern. It is pretty funny--and sounds about right.

American Bittern courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service.

American Bitterns are inhabitants mostly of fresh water marshes and wetlands. But it is seen in Bolsa Chica and Upper Newport Bay which both have salt water areas in which the American Bittern can be seen. The American Bittern is a very elusive bird so count yourself a lucky birder if you spot it. It moves slowly and silently.

This is Canadian Nancy Today who is pretty funny. You won't forget how an American Bittern sounds. Nancy is a free-lance writer.

It's a bird that is a loner out in the wetlands or marshes in which it lives. A very solitary bird. No flocking together or nesting together. It likes to be alone in the marsh. Likes to wander through the Wetlands. American Bitterns eat fish, frogs, crayfish, insects--including dragon flies-- small snakes and eels, and small mammals.

Nancy observing American Bitterns--you can really tell that it is hard to spot American Bitterns. Nancy's other videos range from funny to informative.

The courtship of the American Bittern has been described over the years a few authors and even diagrammed by ornithologist Paul A. Johnsgard. The American Bittern is generally monogamous. The male has white "nuptial plumes" that are on its shoulder. It can fan them out when displaying to the female. Quite a display evidently.

American Bittern foraging among the reeds in a marsh from YouTube.

Most maps show that Orange County is an area for wintering American Bitterns. There is a small area north of us along the coast that shows year-round American Bitterns. Even though a bird only winters in an area, there is a chance of non-breeding birds remaining behind. They are listed as rare in winter and fall in Bolsa Chica. (Check out this picture on Flicker of an American Bittern at Bolsa Chica.) It is listed in Huntington Beach in General as rare year-round. It can be found at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary (Here are some pictures at SJWS by Glenn Price), but they do not say which seasons. Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge lists them rare in every season except summer in which they are absent. The Upper Newport Bay census does not show them at all, but sightings have been reported to the OC Rare Bird Alert. San Diego Museum of Natural History shows the American Bittern as a bird that winters and occasionally breeds in San Diego County. The species has also bred in Santa Barbara, and Ventura lists it as rare to very rare.

American Bittern in a pond from YouTube.

An American Bittern can be confused with two immature birds: Black-Crowned Night Heron and the Green Heron. The American Bittern is has a larger, sharper bill than either and more defined, warmer striping. It has a longer and wider neck. It does hunch up as well. The characteristic pose with its bill in the air is like no other. The sound is different as well.

To have the best chance of seeing American Bitterns you would need to go birding in the northern states like Washington, Michigan, Maine, and the like. Or to Canada. To have a chance of seeing the wintering American Bittern in Orange County, do what my ex did: go to the habitat they like, go early or at dusk, and look very closely. I would also say, listen for the pumping call and see if you can find it. Birding in Orange county is a fun outdoor sport when you are looking for rare birds. So if you Orange County birders want to see an American Bittern, get out there in the wetlands and marshes in fall and winter, and look sharp. You just might add it to your life list.

Where can a birder possibly see American Bitterns?

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

Upper Newport Bay

Talbert Marsh

El Dorado Nature Center in Long Beach

Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge

OC Birder Girl Links

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

Orange County Bird Checklists

San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

Black-crowned Night Heron--Nycticorax nycticorax

Cattle Egret--Bubulcus ibis--A Rare Bird

Great Blue Heron--Ardea herodias

Great Egret--Ardea alba

Green Heron--Butorides virescens

The Herons and Egrets of Orange County

Reddish Egret--A Rare Bird

Snowy Egret--Egretta thula

Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve aka Newport Back Bay

External Links and Resources

The American Bittern as a Stake-driver

This is an article (Auk: Vol. 57, No. 4, October-December, 1940) discussing the varying sound of the American Bittern and if it is distance that makes it sound different to the listener. You must page down a little to see it.

American Bittern Habitat Model

Short summary of habitat needs of the American Bittern.

Animal Diversity Web: American Bittern

Detailed information on this secretive bird.

Audubon Society: #15 Common Bird in Decline American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus)

About the American Bittern's decreasing numbers.

Bird Cinema: American Bittern

Videos on Bird Cinema that show the American Bittern.

Birds of North America: American Bittern

Courtesy preview of a much longer section covering the American Bittern. Some good information.

BirdWeb: American Bittern

Good article from the Seattle Audubon Society.

California Wildlife Habitat Relationships System

A fact sheet.

The Courtship Display of the American Bittern

Field Observation of the courtship of two American Bitterns observed by the author William G. Fargo and written up in Auk: Vol. 45, No. 2, April-June, 1928.

On the Courtship of the American Bittern

A short description of a field observation of the courtship of the American Bittern from Condor: Vol. 31, No. 2, March-April, 1929.

Copulatory Behavior of the American Bittern

Another description of the courtship of the American Bittern with field drawings. (Auk: Vol. 97, No. 4, October-December, 1980)

Effects of Management Practices on Grassland Birds:
American Bittern

Paper on the effects of human management of grasslands and wetlands and how it affects the American Bittern. Areas include California.

Internet Bird Collection: American Bittern

Great video of an American Bittern by videographer and birder Don Des Jardin

National Audubon Society: American Bittern

Good information in this Audubon article on the American Bittern.

NatureWorks: American Bittern - Botaurus lentiginosus

Nice article.

Saltgrass Flats: American Bittern

Nice photos from this Texas site.

USGS: American Bittern

Short, but good article.

Visual Resources for Ornithology: American Bittern

Pictures of the American Bittern

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