Happy Being Bitterned

It has been awhile, but finally back at it. I took some time off to enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday and to get rested up for the big push to the end of the year. Purely based on the 1100+ emails sitting in my inbox from WordPress I was the only one that has been slacking – will attempt to catch up although at some point the hole becomes insurmountable. To my credit, I have been busy away from the keyboard – got all the exterior Christmas decorations/lighting done (not at the Halloween level, but still significant), finished the interior decorating along with the big ass Xmas tree (just under 14 feet) and addressed the annual leaf horde. That latter one is probably more exhausting than my last two ultras put together. There are times when living in a forest has its down point. One being when the moles mount their counteroffensive to take back the relatively small part I cleared for a yard. It is fierce, nerve-racking, messy and bloody. Those bastards are getting smarter on every attack – next time I am fully expecting archers with flaming arrows and oil filled catapults to be rolled up to the forest edge (a mole army led by Merlin himself). Woods living also gets interesting when winds crest over 30mph, but it is the fall effect that could make one bitter. 2 full days of raking and burning in November to get the early drops taken care of and now another 3 full days/nights dealing with the final dumping – Consider me eternally grateful for Prometheus’ gift to humanity.

The good news is, no matter how tiring it might be, being outdoors will never make me bitter. Come to think of it, few things in the birding world get me more excited than being outdoors and discovering a Bittern in the wild.

American Bittern found at Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center in Port Aransas, TX in January 2021

How’s that for a contrived lead in to today’s featured feathered friend? Per my comments in the November posts I am desperately trying to get my unique species birding life list to 300 by the end of this year. Although the left sidebar running count isn’t updated yet, that number stands at 295 giving me.. one sec, subtract that..carry the one, multiply by the inverse, find the limits, solve quadratic…x=5 – yes, that gives me 5 species to go and a little less than a month to get that accomplished. If you read my Blue-Winged Warbler post (link here), then you already know that today’s American Bittern feature brings that gap down to 4.

American Bittern found at Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center in Port Aransas, TX in January 2021

Hi the jump to read more about the guzzling drunk.

In that previous post, I noted I was shocked this Bittern was still unchecked on the list. I’ve had three encounters with this member of the Heron family. The first was at Emiquon NWR probably 5 years or more ago. On the way back home, Linda pulled into the U of I extension area (opposite side of the road) so I could do a quick check of the marshy field. There was a strange sound coming from the reeds. Hard to explain beyond a drunk guzzling down moonshine from a glass jug. Cornell labels it as “pump-er-lunk” – I’m sticking with “drunk-ard-glub”. Strained to peer through the tall reeds only to have the crap scared out of me when this monster unexpectedly took flight. What resulted was an out of focus shot of green/yellow feet and a feeling I might need to change my shorts.

American Bittern found at Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center in Port Aransas, TX in January 2021

Linda: “did you get that bird that flew out of there?” Me: “No, let’s never speak of it and we must go straight home NOW”. The other two encounters with the large Bittern were at the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center during our January trips to the Texas Gulf Coast. Leonabelle is located in Port Aransas and is an absolute gem of a birding location. The first time we went there several years ago, we were a bit skeptical. When you arrive, the first thing you see is some form of a water/waste treatment facility. There is a small parking lot to the side with a sidewalk that heads back behind that facility. Not expecting much, had Linda stay with the RV while I went to do a quick check – their parking lot is too small for our vehicle and had to pull off across the street. I’ll definitely cover this birding center in full detail in the coming months, but to cut to the chase, I immediately called Linda and had her join me. They have a very nice boardwalk that cuts across a mixture of habitat including marsh and the Gulf/Bay backwater channels -The center also has at least one gigantic Gator wandering the area. On that first visit we spotted an American Bittern hunting the waters on the marsh side of the boardwalk – right behind the treatment plant and probably 50 feet from that Gator sunning itself on the banks mouth pointed directly at the bird. Guessing the Bittern felt safe knowing how difficult it was to see them in the reeds.

American Bittern found at Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center in Port Aransas, TX in January 2021

Without hesitation, we added Lenoabelle to this year’s January trip to Texas. Managed to get the RV parked in the same spot as before, noted the now familiar smell from the treatment facility and eagerly headed to the boardwalk. The Gator was still there, however, this time moved to the other side of the boardwalk. There were Egrets and Ducks within 5 feet of it – apparently this reptile is a vegetarian hehehe. Took a few shots of it and then turned my attention to seeing if the Bittern was also hanging out. Took a few minutes, concentrated on the places where it was the previous year and then spotted it once again in the reeds – EXACT same spot. I led with the wider shot at the beginning of this post as that is the typical conditions you find these Bitterns in – tucked away in the reeds enjoying their isolation. Fought like hell to get The Beast to slice through the vegetation to get a few shots to prove it was there. Happily pointed out the Bittern to a number of visitors that were eager to see what I was concentrating on. Always brings a smile to my face when I see the surprised look on their faces when they finally see it (a fun birding game to come up with ways to describe where camouflaged birds are hiding out – clock face directions, two landscape points to triangulate off of, distance away (I find this to be the worst method as people are generally not good at estimating distances), close to {insert some easily identifiable duck} and if all else fails pointing which I generally do not like to do. Sometimes I’ll even show them the back of my camera and zoom into the spot in the frame.

American Bittern found at Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center in Port Aransas, TX in January 2021

After getting my fill of reed filled shots, headed over to their observation deck to check out the Whooping Cranes (link here). Yep,they usually have a family there if you need to add that rare bird to your list – if you are after them there though, bring some big glass as they tend to hang pretty far out – there are better places to see Whoopers in that area near Goose Island. Eventually came back and looked over to see how the Bittern was faring. Had my own surprised face on when it started walking out of the reeds toward me – wow, unobstructed tinnings!

American Bittern found at Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center in Port Aransas, TX in January 2021

There I was, taking shots of one of the more secluded members of the Heron family. Not sure how many shots I took, but my finger was sore afterwards – worth it. Eventually it wandered back to the bank before hanging a left and following the fence line of the treatment facility. Lost sight of it as it passed some thick brush. Headed to the boardwalk entrance elated with the recent opportunity. Didn’t realize the Bittern visit wasn’t over. Before stepping off the boardwalk, looked right and there it was staring right at me – a mini shudder as these birds look supper goofy when straight on with their necks up – their eye balls stick slightly off the sides of the head so it looks like they have eyeballs on the side of their necks. Eventually it turned a bit removing the cringe effect ha. It was so close now, The Beast was pulled back all the way and I still could only get its head/neck in the field of view.

American Bittern found at Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center in Port Aransas, TX in January 2021

Eventually just put the camera down and enjoyed the experience. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty scripts it perfectly – “When are you going to take it [the picture]? Sometimes I don’t If I like a moment for me personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it. Stay in it? Yeah, Right there. Right here.” Eventually called Linda and had her come enjoy the moment with me. Lost track of the number of people that came up to me and asked if I’d seen anything good – “Well, there’s this”.. while gesturing to the Bittern head that was less than 5 feet from me. I could tell the real birders, they were heading back to their cars for a change of pants.

Time to get to some interesting aspects of this large wader. First off, they have HUGE feet. Sandra at Into the Light Adventures (link here) will appreciate the following feet shot

American Bittern found at Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center in Port Aransas, TX in January 2021

Their feathering provides excellent camouflage in their preferred habitat – in the reeds along freshwater marshes. When threatened, they will point their bill straight up and remain motionless concealing themselves among the dry reeds. You can kind of see a bit of that behavior in the 4th shot – it doesn’t work that well when they are out in the open. I do have a better shot of that in a series of shots I head back from this post – already had a lot here and decided I’d put out a part two after the holidays. Cornell does state they are rarely out in the open confirming my rare encounter. They prefer to hunt in isolation and beyond mating have very little to do with each other beyond engaging in territorial disputes with intruding males. Probably only going to see one specimen at most in whatever habitat you happen to be in. Not surprising they are fish, crustacean, eel and reptile hunters. Was surprised to learn they also like insects, especially Dragonflies as well as Snakes (Linda’s new favorite bird!). Interesting that after two experiences at Leonabelle I have still to witness it snagging prey.

American Bittern found at Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center in Port Aransas, TX in January 2021

Lastly, for those that have not seen this particular bird and maybe concerned about distinguishing it from the Least Bittern (link here), fear not. They are vastly different in size and you will have no problem making the distinction. I put the Least in the smaller Green Heron category (link here), where the American matches up better with a smaller Great Blue Heron (link here).

Will call it a post there – need to leave some information for the future part 2 of this series. Hope you enjoyed reading about the latest addition to my birding life list. Only 4 more to go coming down to the wire. For those with the ability, I HIGHLY encourage you to check out Leonabell Turnbull Birding Center – you will not be disappointed.

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