The Return of the American Bittern

American Bittern

Last year an American Bittern showed up at the Eagleson storm water ponds on August 21, 2019. This is the last place I expected to see this species, since the ponds are mostly open water and this is a species that prefers dense cattail marches. It was hunting for fish along the west side of the shore of the central pond, tucked up against a patch of smartweed but completely visible to any who cared to look. It was a one-day wonder, and as no one reported seeing it after that date I figured that would be the last time I would see one at the ponds. Then, on August 12th, my friend Sophie – who first messaged me about the bittern last year – messaged me again after dinner to say that another bittern was at the pond – in the same area as the one last year! Is it a coincidence? Although I have not proof, I do think it is the same one, as many birds show a strong degree of fidelity to their summer breeding sites and a lesser degree of fidelity to their wintering areas. Perhaps they also keep track of particular stopover sites where the food is abundant to help ensure their survival.

I hurried over to the ponds to take a look, but it flew from the middle of the central pond to the opposite shore just as I arrived, landing among the ropes. Fortunately a beaver feeding on the aquatic plants in the sunlight made my rush around the pond worthwhile. It’s not often that I see them here, so I was happy it was close enough to the shore to get some photos.

Canadian Beaver

Not so the bittern. Sophie, Sophie’s mom Nathalie and I hurried around the pond, but by then the sun had disappeared behind some clouds and the pond was in shadow. I stayed and watched the bittern until it got too dark to see, vowing to return in the morning to see if it was still there. Happily, it was, and I found it feeding in the same roped-off area near the eastern shore where I had left it the night before.

American Bittern

It walked slowly through the shallow water, completely unfazed by its open surroundings or the lack of tall reeds or cattails to give it cover. Bitterns usually hunt by standing motionlessly among the reeds and other vegetation as they wait for prey – usually fish, reptiles, amphibians, and crustaceans – to approach, or by slowly making their way through the water with movements so slow they are barely perceptible. Once the prey is within reach, the bittern will suddenly strike and capture the animal with its long bill. Unlike herons, which tend to gather in groups in food-rich wetlands, bitterns usually forage alone – and rarely out in the open, unlike their gaudier cousins.

American Bittern

American Bittern

When alarmed the bittern will freeze, pointing its head and beak straight up into the air and swaying slightly to imitate wind-ruffled cattails. This helps them to become invisible among the reeds of the marsh. However, this camouflage strategy does not work in open areas for obvious reasons, and I never saw the bittern display this behaviour.

American Bittern

American Bittern with a small fish

While walking around to get better photos of the bittern, I scared up a Wandering Glider out of the tall grass. I watched to see where it landed, and followed it to get some photos. These migrant dragonflies usually start arriving in Ottawa in mid-summer and become more numerous in August and September. They love open areas with tall grass, shallow ponds, and mudflats. They can also be seen flying around intersections – it is believed they mistake the sun reflecting off the glass windshields for water.

Wandering Glider

The American Bittern spent three days at the pond, seen on August 12th for the first time and on August 15th for the last time. I was happy to find it in the same area on the morning of August 15th, walking slowly through the open water while watching for schools of minnows.

American Bittern

Its stealthy stalking took it closer and closer to the reeds along the shoreline, where it spent some time hunting. This is a more accurate representation of how you might normally see a bittern in a marsh:

American Bittern

After watching the bittern for a while I took a walk around the pond and found 29 additional species. I found two catbirds and two Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in different parts of the ponds, and heard a Purple Finch flying over. I also saw a Red-breasted Nuthatch, which is not common at the ponds. There were only two warbler species – Yellow and Common Yellowthroat – and only three shorebird species: four Greater and one Lesser Yellowlegs were present while I arrived, and two Solitary Sandpipers flew in shortly after, landing on a rock in front of me:

Solitary Sandpiper

It’s great to see the birds starting to turn up in different areas looking for food. While most of these birds are probably undergoing post-breeding dispersal, it’s likely that migration has also begun. The bittern has just started its long southward migration, and I’m glad it was able to spend three full days here fattening up for its journey. If indeed it is the same one from last year, perhaps we’ll see it again.

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