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American Bittern

American Bittern

American Bitterns are more often heard than seen. They live in the cattails and bulrushes of fresh and saltwater marshes. They move in what has been called an agonizingly slow beat. When frightened they freeze with their bill pointing straight up to the sky. Their streaked neck and chest makes them blend in with the grass and sedges. They will even sway like grasses in the breeze.

The American Bittern is a stocky heron. It stands about two feet tall. Its back is smudgy brown and it has brown streaking from the chin to the chest. The eye is yellow as are the legs and feet. It has a straight, stout beak that tapers to a point.

They are patient, stand-and-wait hunters. They stand motionless, then strike the prey with their beaks. Their diet is described as anything they can catch, including fish, frogs, and insects.

Bitterns inland come to the coast for the winter or head farther south. In early spring all return to their nesting grounds and for a short while exchange their elusive ways for elaborate courtship flights and displays. The male booms like a grouse and fans white ruffs on the back and shoulders. The male booms throughout the day and can be heard a half-mile away. This is achieved, much like adolescent boys, by gulping air then forcing it out through an extended esophagus. At night, their deep, pounding calls can be heard among the frogs. They also emit nasal squawks in flight.

A female lays and incubates four to five eggs in a nest, hidden above the water-line, which has a separate entrance and exit. Other names for the American Bittern include bog bull, flying fox, look-up, stake bird, and water-belcher.

First published MCAS The Whistling Swan September 2010
photo uncredited