March 2013 Bird Photo of the Month

Sitting pretty-waiting to strike © Don Schuster
Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis)

Stalking its prey, the Least Bittern, clinging with long toes and curling claws to a pickerel weed stem, can remain poised and still for such a long time. Waiting for a fish, tadpole, crayfish or dragonfly to pass by before striking with great speed, they are able to capture prey in a flash. Narrow bodies (2.2 inches) can be compressed to 1.6 inches (reported by J. J. Audubon), enabling them to squeeze easily through tangled vegetation. Bitterns can disappear from danger by “freezing” with bills pointed upward, appearing like another reed. Also in their fishing toolbox, they may use “neck swaying” to overcome the water’s glare, to increase camouflage mimicking reeds swaying in the wind, or to get muscles in motion anticipating their strike. They also use repeated “wing-flicking” to startle prey from hiding places.

Casual observers may not notice this motionless heron (our smallest). Humans, like fish, look for movement to detect another’s presence. Only with experience, and by knowing where and how to look for their shape by scanning the edges of the reeds in fresh or brackish water marshes, does one locate them. In central Florida, Least Bitterns breed and are found here year round. Northern U.S. breeding birds that winter here and those that migrate via Florida to the Antilles, Central and South America likely supplement our resident birds’ numbers.

A good place to observe this bird is at wastewater-treatment areas with boardwalks for human visitors. There, the birds feel safe because visitors stay on the walkway. Don Schuster, using a Canon EOS 50D long 50-500 @313mm lens with skill and much patience, photographed this artistically patterned heron. He had to first spot the bird in its natural habitat, wait until the bird was clear of reeds, and catch the bird in typical action. Excellent.

Juanita Baker, Coordinator
Florida Bird Photo of the Month
Pelican Island Audubon

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