As we headed around the loop that would take us to Shovelers' Pond, we stopped briefly at The Willows. It really should have another name now. The willows that gave it its name were drowned by Hurricane Ike four years ago. Vegetation has grown back but it's quite a different habitat from what it used to be. On this day, I found Orchard Orioles, Northern Mockingbirds, Mourning Doves, Red-winged Blackbirds, Great-tailed Grackles, and plentiful butterflies working the Joe Pye weed.
Just a bit farther along the loop, I caught a glimpse of a big bird flying into the weeds on the right hand side of the road. We stopped and I focused my binoculars to get a better look. I was delighted to find that it was, in fact, one of my target birds, the Least Bittern.
One almost has to be lucky to see a Least Bittern, because it lives in dense, tangled vegetation where its narrow body allows it to move about with ease. It is one of the smallest herons in the world and it is well-adapted for life in dense marshes. Its diet is mostly fish and insects and it would certainly find plenty of both at ANWR.
The nests of bitterns are usually widely scattered but they do sometimes nest, as many herons and egrets do, in colonies. In one study in South Carolina, these bitterns nested in close association with Boat-tailed Grackles. It is possible that they have the same association with Great-tailed Grackles at ANWR. There are plenty of those big grackles around.
Their clutch of eggs may number from 2 - 7, but most often are 4 - 5; however, I only saw one chick on this day, although there could easily have been others among the reeds. Both of the parents feed the young through regurgitation. A pair may produce as many as two broods of chicks per year.
Seeing the bittern was really the high point of my day of birding and it happened very early, but there were some other nice moments and nice birds seen. I'll share more of them with you over the next couple of days.