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Return of the Bittern (What Time is it in Nature)

October 10, 2015

It’s official: our overwintering American Bittern has returned to Prairie Ridge!  This is the third fall it has appeared at Prairie Ridge and we hope that it will stick around all winter the way it has the last two years.

Bittern standing in the pond

American Bittern at Prairie Ridge. Photo by Chris Goforth,

This gorgeous bird is a member of the heron family, though it’s one of the smaller, stockier members.  Their feathers are mostly brown and cream and their long legs are yellow. They’re hard to see because their feathers and legs blend in so well with the surrounding vegetation.

You’ll most often see the Bittern at Prairie Ridge doing one of two things, hunting or hiding.  Bitterns eat a variety of aquatic animals, including the frogs, tadpoles, and insects that are abundant in the pond.  Once it spots something it wants to eat, it will very slowly walk toward it, swaying from side to side a bit as it moves. When it comes within striking range, it will poke its beak into the water with impressive speed and clamp down on its prey before tipping its head back and swallowing it whole.

Hiding is relatively easy for Bitterns given that their coloration so closely resembles their preferred habitat, densely vegetated marshy areas. A Bittern sitting still is hard to see and a Bittern moving slowly is only slightly easier to spot.  Bitterns will also point their beaks skyward and stretch out their necks to their full height, then sway gently back and forth.  By doing this, the bird looks so much like a clump of dry cattails blowing in the breeze that they’re very difficult to see.

The Bittern that overwinters at Prairie Ridge, however, is often out in the open where you can spot it easily.  On your next visit, head down to the pond and scan the banks and marshy areas of the water.  You may find the Bittern lurking in the cattails or hunting in the shallows under the willows.  If you happen to see someone with binoculars or a camera, it might be worth asking what they’re looking at!  Finding the Bittern is a lot easier if someone’s already done the hard work for you and can simply point it out.

If you haven’t seen our winter visitor the last two years, now is the perfect time to head out to Prairie Ridge to look for the Bittern!  It might be a little hard to find at first, but this charismatic and beautiful bird is well worth the effort.

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

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