Most coastal residents and vacationers to our coast are familiar with Great Blue Herons or White Egrets because they are a common sight in the marshlands of Eastern North Carolina. However, the American Bittern, also a wading bird of the heron family and who lives among us, is hardly ever seen or spoken of. When someone does see one, they usually don’t know what it is they are looking at. That was the case when a lady saw one in her back yard that had been roughed up during our most recent tropical storm. He was not moving but still alive when she brought him to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport a few weeks ago. We wildlife rehabilitators at the shelter are as unfamiliar with the Bittern as most. A scan through our bird book was necessary to confirm the injured wetland bird’s identity.
A solitary species, the American Bittern is difficult to see because of its remarkable ability to blend in with surrounding vegetation and dense reed beds. While other herons prefer to flee when approached, Bitterns will freeze and often stretch their neck straight up with bill pointed towards the sky and sway from side to side to blend in perfectly with its reedy background.
This stocky heron is heavily streaked with tan, brown, and white over its entire body. Darker wings and flight feathers, a black face, and neck streaks accentuate their plumage. Males and females have similar plumage. The Bittern has a 3 foot wingspan and is approximately 2.5 feet long from the tip of its long pointed bill to the end of its tail. While the bird can appear quite large, especially when it holds its neck in and puffs up its feathers, it weighs only about a pound.
The American Bittern inhabits large, reedy wetlands, and needs shallow freshwater marshes for nesting. The female does most of the nest-building, incubation and chick rearing. American Bitterns are sometimes polygamous, with one male mating with several females. Their nests are platform structures of reeds and grasses. Three to five eggs are laid and incubated for at least 24 days. The baby Bitterns may leave the nest after only a week or two, but they remain close by for another month or longer, until they are able to fly.
The basic diet of the American Bittern includes insects like beetles, dragonflies and water scorpions, amphibians, crayfish, snakes and small fish and mammals. When foraging, which occurs most often at dusk and dawn, the patient Bittern relies mostly on stealth, waiting motionless for its prey to pass by. Its camouflage ability allows it to go undetected by prey. When its potential meal is within reach, the bird darts forward and with a rapid spearing motion, seizes the prey in its bill. Although the Bittern may be hard to see, if we listen close enough we may be able to hear that loud, booming guttural “pump-er-wink” call resounding from the marsh. It’s quite unique and some have described their call similar to a dripping faucet which has led to many nicknames such as stake-driver, water-belcher, mire drum and thunder pumper. Collectively, a group of bitterns is referred to as a “dash”, “freeze”, “pint”, “pretense” and “siege” of bitterns.
Although the average life expectancy for the American Bittern is eight years, there is a reported population decline of Bitterns due to loss of habitat. Many marshes and swamplands that Bitterns have depended upon have been drained and filled for human uses such as roads, housing and commercial developments. The species remains relatively unstudied due to its secretive nature and inaccessible habitats, but they are federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. We feel very protective of our rare American Bittern patient and hope he recovers soon. We want our covert heron back on his feet to once again wade the marshes of Carteret County.
author of “Save Them All“