A Bronze Heron – The Bittern

April 12, 2020 ~ My photo outings have decreased as parks and nature preserves closed due to the pandemic. But I can still share with you what I saw and enjoyed on my earlier spring outings. This post contains photos of 3 birds, taken on two different visits to Brazos Bend State Park, during March, while “social distancing” was in effect, but before the “Stay at Home” order was issued in Texas.

So far, I’ve shared photos of the Little Blue Heron, the Tri-Colored Heron, and the Great Egret (not to be confused with the Great White Heron, the largest pure-white heron, restricted to Florida). The Texas Gulf Coast also has a Green Heron, for which I’m still searching. So, in the midst of all this color-based descriptive naming, what’s up with a bird called the “Bittern”? Why isn’t it called the Bronze Heron?

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American Bittern with intent gaze
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/1250 sec f/5.6 ISO 640 at 500mm

And color is so important to this bird!

From the Oxford English dictionary:

The word Bittern is derived from the Late Middle English bitore, from Old French butor, based on Latin butio ‘bittern’ + taurus ‘bull’ (because of its call). The -n was added in the 16th century, perhaps by association with hern, the obsolete variant of heron.

I didn’t get to hear him vocalize at all, but there’s a nice sound sample at All About Birds. Hearing that “thunk-kerplunk” is definitely something to look forward to.

He (or she, the sexes look the same) is typically found at the base of the dried blond reeds in shallow fresh-water marshes. He will stand with his back to the reeds, and stretch his neck upward, for long minutes at a time, swaying very slightly from side to side. This motion, with his cream and … bronze … stripes help him blend almost seamlessly into the pattern of the reeds, as they bend in the slight breeze.

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American Bittern looking slightly cross-eyed
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/250 sec f/5.6 ISO 640 at 500mm

The Bittern’s eyes are inset and tilted downward in his head, allowing him to gaze out directly in front of himself when his head is elevated in this “hiding in plain sight” posture.

The Bittern is a medium-sized heron, somewhat smaller and stockier than the Little Blue Heron, with a much shorter neck. He is a stealthy hunter, watching almost motionless as his prey (fish, tadpoles, snails, etc.) wander into his reach. He moves slowly and carefully, seemingly always aware of his background (but more likely, trying not to startle his prey in the shallow water). When he is on the move, he often adopts an angle of body, head and neck that again aligns perfectly with the reeds behind him, making him very difficult to spot.

American Bittern making himself invisible
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/250 sec f/5.6 ISO 640 at 500mm

He has the long narrow legs and long toes typical of other herons, and the yellow-green color of his legs is well-suited to helping him stay camouflaged among the reeds.

Bittern Range Map
American Bittern range map, courtesy of All About Birds

The All About Birds range map indicates that the American Bittern winters here along the Gulf Coast, flying north for the spring breeding season. The Heron Conservation website says they move south in September-November to avoid freezing temperatures, and then return north in February through mid-May.

But a tiny notation in the Outdoor Alabama website caught my interest. It said “They also have local breeding populations located in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Mexico”. Now that was interesting.

The photos above were all taken during the first two weeks of March. But look what I saw at the very end of March.

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American Bittern doing a major strut and fluff
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/800 sec f6.3 ISO 1000 at 310mm

This bird was walking back and forth in the marshy plants under weeds and underbrush, right at the edge of the path. He’s not just doing an occasional fluff up. He’s showing off.

I’m big, really stupendous, look at me!
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/800 sec f6.3 ISO 1000 at 310mm

He paced back and forth under the brush. His display included repeatedly stretching very tall and puffing out his head and neck feathers, holding his wings partially unfolded while puffing up, holding his wings away from his body and fluffing out while doing a low-crawl, and hunching down while fluffing his shoulders.

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Look at my deltoids, I’m a provider!
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/1000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1000 at 310mm

I never saw his audience, the target of his affections, his potential mate. Either she was part of the “local breeding population” and was very well camouflaged somewhere nearby, or he was just practicing before his trip north to the major breeding grounds.

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Oooh, ahhh! And the ladies go wild!
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/1000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1000 at 310mm

All About Birds says that the Bittern’s eyes turn orange during breeding season. Only the bird in the top and bottom photos show eyes that are a bit orange; the two birds in the other photos have eyes that appear yellow-gold. So maybe March was still early, and this display was just a preview of attractions to come… or maybe we have a local breeding population at Brazos Bend State Park.

American Bittern looking… burnished… in the golden hour
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/1000 sec f/5.6 ISO 800 at 500mm

In any case, I’ve enjoyed training my eyes to spot this elusive, handsome and very well camouflaged bronze heron.



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