American Bitterns can be secretive and are helped by their camouflage coloration.
Many birds, and all kinds of other organisms for that matter, use camouflage and disguise to protect themselves, their nests, and their young from predators intent on doing them harm. Many have mottled feathers and/or streaking and/or coloring that will help them blend into their surroundings and make it very difficult for them to be seen. They also have the ability to remain still, so that a potential predator will not see any movement that would give them away.
Bitterns have a unique combination of back and belly streaking and color that enable them to blend in with the reeds, stalks and leaves of the tall plants where they feed, live, raise their young, and go to work every day. They are very shy, stealthy, slow moving and retiring. In addition, they have the ability to point their beaks straight upward, and wave back and forth with the surrounding vegetation so they actually blend in even more. Consequently, they can be very difficult to find and observe, and it is always thrilling to find one, particularly the Least Bittern, because of its smaller size.
The first time I ever saw an American Bittern (right, and flying at bottom of article), it was standing stock still, beak pointed to the sky, in the middle of a small pond without a single stick of vegetation anywhere near it, in the apparent mistaken impression that it was camouflaged and therefore nearly invisible. While it is true that Bitterns can be almost impossible to see when they are in their stationary head and beak skyward stance, it is still the surrounding stalks and reeds that provide them their singular sense of safety, by simply simulating their surroundings. Sort of like Br’er Rabbit in the briar patch. But it just doesn’t work in a pond without any vegetation whatsoever.
In North America we have two bittern species: the larger American Bittern spread through-out most of the country, but concentrated in the south, including Florida, in the winter; and the Least Bittern (right and below left), primarily east of the Mississippi River, but only a few remaining in the winter, with the rest heading farther south, probably to Central America or the West Indies, where they are common year round. They are technically “herons” and appear at the beginning of all the herons taxonomically, but are each in a separate genus divided by size. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bittern.
This winter, for some reason, it seems that every time we went to a location affording appropriate habitat we saw American Bitterns. A couple of times, particularly at Green Cay and Wakodahatchee, the birds uncharacteristically came out into the open and performed as if on a stage to the delight of all fortunate enough to be there to see them, sometimes quite close to the boardwalk. I do not have an explanation for why they were more readily seen this winter than in the past. Maybe it was just our dumb luck.
I also searched for the derivation of the name “Bittern,” hoping to find some really neat and exciting reason for such a name choice. No such luck though, and you can imagine my disappointment when I found this dictionary explanation, “… identified with Latin būteō a species of hawk (see buteo)+ Latin taurus bull (cited by Pliny as a name for a bird emitting a bellowing sound).” Not very sexy at all, is it?
However, we should soon begin finding the more secretive and elusive Least Bittern as they start arriving back in North America from their wintering grounds. Only the American Bittern emits the “bellowing sound” though, which has also been described as a “congested pump.” www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Bittern/sounds.
The Least Bittern has a four note clucking sound. www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/least_bittern/sounds. Years ago, on a spring round-up birding count in Pennsylvania, my companions and I heard this sound coming from a marsh and immediately marked it down as a Black-billed Cuckoo, even though the habitat didn’t look right, and of course, we never saw the bird. Only years later when I actually heard a Least Bittern call did I realize the mistake. Listen to this Black-billed Cuckoo call, compare it to the Least Bittern call, and perhaps you will understand our inexperienced stupidity. www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black-billed_Cuckoo/sounds.
Inexperienced stupidity used to be hard to admit, but it has gotten much easier as I have aged. (4/6/2013)