Thursday, December 6, 2012

Least Bittern

Several years ago in South Dakota, a friend called and invited me on a birding trip to search for Least Bitterns. The problem is that, in the upper midwest, you don’t see that many Least Bitterns. It is not that they are rare—they can be quite common—nor are they particularly shy. They are extremely inconspicuous in their deep-water marshland habitat, and they are the smallest of the herons. If you get too close, they will often “burrow like rodents through dense vegetation”—they have extremely narrow bodies—or stand completely still with their beaks in the air and their feathers tights against their bodies (Poole et al. 2009). Only rarely will they fly—although I have seen roadkill on occasion in South Dakota and birds in flight in the winter in Louisiana.

Thus finding this Least Bittern was quite a surprise. It fed quite unconcerned about our presence in a marsh in Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Aberdeen. The bird stood perfectly still and then, in a flash, speared a small catfish. Where prey is abundant, Least Bitterns also build small platforms from which to feed. Satiated, this individual strolled deeper into the marsh, leaving my friend and me delighted with our discovery.

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