American bittern elusive but so worth the wait

  • Sep. 20, 2017 2:39 p.m.

The first time I heard the distinctive pump-er-lunk call of an American Bittern was while canoeing many decades ago on a beautiful littlelake west of Rimbey. Lucky for me, my canoeing partner, Fred, was an expert naturalist. He quietly regaled me with bittern stories andinformation while we scoured the shoreline cattails, eager to catch a glimpse of this elusive heron. Eventually, we found it—a streakedbrown bird standing motionless in the cattails, its body stretched up and its beak pointed skyward. Its bright yellow eyes, wide andsparkling, glared directly at us. Standing as still as a marble statue, we realized that the bird had every confidence that it was invisible tous.

In the years since that enchanting encounter, I’ve been on the lookout for bitterns. However, except for a quick glance and hasty photo ofone standing in a ditch two years ago, I’ve not seen another one.

Last summer, I finally lucked out. First, we encountered a young bittern at Elk Island National Park in early July. It remained obscured bycattails, but I was able to snap a few habitat photos. Then, a few weeks later, while kayaking with a friend in the beautiful bay of RochonSands at Buffalo Lake, we encountered two bitterns. For about an hour, we watched these birds patrol the shallows right in front of us. Itwas truly a ringside seat! They would occasionally stretch their necks up as if perceiving some threat, but mostly they ignored us,concentrating their attention on the abundant schools of shoreline minnows. They would alternate between walking slowly and standingmotionless, all the while staring intently into the water. Then zap, they would plunge their heads into the lake and come up with aminnow. After a short but hopeless struggle, the fish would be gulped down.

American Bitterns, like all herons, are found around wetlands. Although they are fairly common in Central Alberta, they are seldomencountered (as I can attest) because they spend most of their time well concealed in shoreline cattails and bulrushes. They are moreoften heard than seen, as they emit a deep booming pump-er-lunk call. This call is so distinctive that has earned them the nickname“thunder pumper.”

Some of their more obvious physical adaptations include cryptic coloration, long legs and massive feet. They also have incredible eyes.Bright yellow in colour, their eyes have the unique ability to focus downward, an attribute which enables them to stare down into thewater to look for fish, frogs and other prey. These moveable eyeballs also allow them to track activity that is taking place in front of them(such as intruding canoeists or kayakers), even when their neck is stretched upward. Although this trait gives them a cross-eyed andstartled appearance, it serves them well while foraging and avoiding predators.

If you would like to learn more about these amazing birds, listen to their strange call and see more images, check out my

Myrna Pearman is a naturalist, outdoors person and photographer.

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