Bittern's Call

Last weekend and the one previous I made morning visits to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, the first visit with my dad and the second with my good friend Bruce (check out his recent post including a report from our trip to Ridgefield together). As I've written before, I love this location, especially in spring when the birds are so active as they move north for the warmer months and have young. But a spring visit is best when it's shared with good company, someone else who loves the peaceful tranquility of nature on a cool morning at first light. Ridgefield is an excellent place to see the American bittern, a very unique and reclusive bird that I am particularly fond of. It is a cousin of the more common great blue heron, but is less than half the size of the heron. The bittern is the same color as dry grass, in which it spends much of its' time, and is incredibly difficult to spot in. When the wind stirs, the bittern will often point its' head straight up and sway its' throat side to side, so it blends in to the long grass even more than it already did. It's truly an amazing bird to watch in person.

But it had been over a year since I had seen a bittern, and I was seeing fewer photos taken by others of them at Ridgefield NWR (the only place I've ever seen a bittern at). But on my dad's an my last lap of our trip two weeks ago, we spotted two bitterns just beside our car in a marsh. We enjoyed watching and peeling off one burst after the other while these two birds slowly meandered through the reeds just feet from off road and from our lenses. It was marvelous, in spite of us meeting these birds in harsh mid day light. Lucky for us, this harsh mid day light was balanced out some by the water acting as a reflector. My dad took this first photo which shows just how difficult it can be to spot a bittern in a marsh.

Bittern hiding in a marsh. Photo taken by Don Vogt.

On Saturday morning last week, Bruce and I did three laps of the auto tour route at Ridgefield NWR, and on the back half of our first lap, I spotted an American bittern hunkered down in the grass. The warm morning light was at our backs and in our favor. We enjoyed watching this bird for some time as scattered clouds moved in front of and then out of the way of the sun, forcing me to change to aperture priority mode on my camera to deal with the ever changing light, a mode on the camera that I rawly use. In such conditions, the quantity of light can quickly change, often by a factor of two or three. Unless people pay close attention to this change in light, our eyes and brain will barely even notice, but the camera sure does. After several minutes of watching this bird, it began to heave its' body, making what has to be one of the most unique calls in the bird world. This was the first time of the many bittern sightings I have had where I was treated to watching one call. Bruce described the sound as "someone beating the side of a half filled fifty gallon barrel." I'd encourage you to click through this link to the All About Birds website and check out this bird's call in the Sound tab. Just maybe, you'll be treated to hearing it some time in the wild, and will know what that bizarre and unique noise is. It really must be heard to be appreciated.