“There is a pair of Least Bitterns on a nest down at Green Cay, and I’m pretty sure I know where it is. Do you want to go with me to check it out?” Now that is the kind of call that is virtually impossible to resist.
Off we went to Green Cay a day later. Unfortunately, the nest was not where my friend thought it was, but we found local birders who did know exactly where the nest was and informed us where to look. “The nest is so deep in the reeds that you won’t be able to see it, but the birds do move around and if you are patient, eventually you will see one or the other of the pair.” How prophetic that piece of information turned out to be! Many of you, Dear Readers, have heard me say that the one thing I have learned in all my years of birding is Patience, with a capital P. And here again it proved invaluable.
As so often happens with Least Bitterns, one of the smallest herons in the world that are frequently smaller than the leaves of plants where they love to nest, hide and hunt prey, after diligent searching we would see perhaps an eye and part of a beak, (photo 2) but with time and extreme patience the bird would finally put in something of an appearance. (photo 1, above) Note the red lores at the base of the bill, the Least Bittern’s breeding plumage indicator, similar to the Great Egret’s green lores, the Snowy Egret’s red lores, the Great Blue Heron’s blue lores or the Cattle Egret’s lavender lores.
Then again, sometimes Least Bitterns will show up right out in the open, even along the boardwalk at Green Cay or Wakodahatchee, providing outstanding opportunities to see the birds up close and personal, (photo 3) While Least Bitterns migrate north and breed all the way to southern Canada, on the east coast all the way to the Mississippi River, and at some locations along the west coast of the United States, they can be found year round in Central and Southern Florida but are much harder to find in the winter.
At first glance male and female Least Bitterns may appear to look very much alike. But if seen from the back, the male will have a darker bluish-green, almost black, crown and back, (photo 4) while the female will have a lighter brown colored crown and back with prominent white vertical streaks on both sides at the base of the wings. (photo 5) Juveniles look most like females but are generally paler in color. (photo 6)
While small fish, such as minnows are the Least Bittern’s mainstay diet, they also eat small snakes, frogs, salamanders, slugs, crustaceans, and even small shrews, mice and dragonflies. Least Bitterns do not hunt by wading in the water as other herons do; instead they hunt from a hidden location in reeds and tall vegetation where they hang onto the stalks of plants near the water’s surface with their oversized feet. In this manner they can fish in deeper water than their larger heron kin because they will hang on and just plunge their head into the water to catch a passing fish, coming up to shake off the droplets of water after a successful strike. (photo 7)
When many birders prepare for an excursion they have much paraphernalia to gather together: binoculars, telescopes and tripods, cameras, a portable seat or cushion for those long days waiting for a rare bird, lunch and beverages, (years ago I birded with a group that always carried a bottle of wine to celebrate any life birds that anyone in the group might encounter, and as you should have suspected, they always made sure to have a rank novice along for the day), and most recently, Jewel now insists I tote along a first aid kit, which sad to say has come in more handy than I ever would have expected.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we birders could pack a good supply of patience with all the other gear we carry? You know, when Bored Birder says, “Okay, I’m getting tired of waiting for this stupid bird to show up, let’s go to a movie,” you could reach in your pocket and pull out some of your supply of Patience and help Bored Birder over the rough spot.
Oh yeah, we do already have that now: it’s called a mobile device and Bored Birder can check out Facebook or Twitter. Then Bored Birder probably won’t even care if “this stupid bird” ever shows up. Patience in your pocket, a relatively recent innovation for birders: almost as good as giving up and going to a movie. Or instead of Patience, would it be more accurately called Distraction?
For more information on Least Bitterns, see: www.birdwatchingdaily.com/news/birdwatching/finding-bitterns/; and www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Least_Bittern/lifehistory; and www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/least-bittern.