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What Time is it in Nature: American Bittern

December 4, 2013

We’ve had a new, first-time visitor to Prairie Ridge recently!  An American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) has been spotted at the pond repeatedly over the past two weeks, a species previously unreported on the grounds.

American Bittern

American Bittern

American Bitterns are a member of the heron family of birds, Ardeidae, and range in size from 2-3 feet tall.  They blend in with their environment well, sporting mostly brown plumage with white markings, a yellow beak, and yellow-green legs.  They have a distinct black stripe running down their heads.  Taken together, these markings give American Bitterns a similar appearance to the reedy marshes they inhabit and make them very hard to see.  The birds further blend in by holding their heads with their beaks pointed skywards, sometimes swaying a little from side to side, and by moving very slowly.  If you’re not looking carefully, you might mistake a Bittern for a clump of swaying reeds!

American Bitterns are more common along the North Carolina coast than they are inland, though happily for us they can be found in nearly any part of the state that has brushy marshes during the fall migration period.  Bitterns have been known to nest in North Carolina as well, but only along the coast and in shallow, densely vegetated wetlands.  When they do nest, the female cares for her 3-5 eggs without the help of the male.

Because they are so cryptically colored, American Bitterns rely on loud, strange calls to communicate with and find one another.  The calls of American Bitterns are very distinctive, with an eerie hollow sound to them.  It’s hard to describe, so please visit the All About Birds American Bittern page so that you can hear it for yourself!  The calls Bitterns are sometimes called “mire drums,”  “thunder pumpers,”or“ stake drivers” due to their calls.

We don’t know whether our American Bittern is just visiting before moving further south or whether it’s here to stay for the winter.  If you want a chance to see it, be sure to visit Prairie Ridge soon!  Head down to the pond and look carefully at the vegetation on the far side of the pond.  If you can’t spot our Bittern from the near shore, a quick walk around the pond will increase your odds of seeing it.  It can be really hard to find, but it’s such an impressive bird that it’s worth the effort!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation.  Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photo by Kim Smart)

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