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Monday, May 21, 2012

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge: Least Bittern

On our trip to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge last Friday, there were three birds in particular that I had hoped to see: Least Bittern, Roseate Spoonbill, and Purple Gallinule. Well, I didn't completely strike out, but I did go one for three. I couldn't find a gallinule or spoonbill, but the most difficult of the three, the bittern, proved unusually cooperative.

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.

The bird was looking back and forth among the weeds.

Was it actually looking for something, I wondered, or was this part of a display?

Then there was a blur of movement among the weeds and a fuzzy chick appeared. The adult began to feed it. I realize you can't really tell much about this picture, but that is what is happening here. As soon as the baby finished feeding, the adult flew away.

  The chick stood looking in the direction where its parent had flown.

It continued to stand there for a minute, maybe hoping Mama or Papa would return with a second course. Then it dropped into the weeds and completely disappeared! If I hadn't seen it, I would never have known there was a chick there.

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.

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