An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

American Bittern

American Bitterns Foraging

American bittern and tadpole 347American Bitterns are typically solitary foragers.  You rarely see more than one at a time (if you’re lucky enough to see one) stealthily standing in place, or slowly walking, as it looks for insects, amphibians (frogs, tadpoles (pictured) and salamanders), small fish, mammals (mostly meadow voles), crayfish and small snakes to eat.  This solitary feeder’s cryptic coloration, especially the stripes on its breast and belly, is thought to function mostly to reduce visibility to prey and competitors rather than to predators.  With lightning speed a bittern seizes its prey and swallows it head first . Roughly twenty-two hours after eating, a bittern ejects the indigestible part of its meal in the form of a pellet.

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Buttonbush Seeds Maturing

9-17-15  buttonbush flowering IMG_2573During the summer, Buttonbush’s one-and-a-half-inch-diameter, white flower balls can be spotted along shorelines and in wetlands. The fragrance of this shrub’s flowers attracts many pollinators, especially bumblebees and butterflies (their tongues are long enough to reach the deep nectaries). After pollination, the 200-plus flowers on each head of this member of the Coffee family produce small nutlets that are dispersed by water and consumed by waterfowl (particularly surface-feeding dabbling ducks), American Bitterns, rails and Northern Bobwhites. (photo: buttonbush seed head)

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American Bitterns Calling

A. bittern calling 814Because they live in marshes amongst dense vegetation where sight is restricted, American Bitterns communicate with each other largely through their calls. These calls are made at a very low frequency which allows them to be audible at great distances.

The call heard most often, especially early in their breeding season, is low, resonant, and composed of three syllables that sound something like “ pump-er-lunk ,“ preceded by a series of clicking and gulping sounds. The male bittern accomplishes this by inflating his esophagus while simultaneously contorting himself quite violently. He repeats the call up to ten times, and uses it to establish his territory as well as to advertise for a mate. You can hear the American Bittern’s call by going to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/american_bittern/sounds.

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American Bitterns Displaying

5-3-14  American Bittern3  058American Bitterns are very secretive marsh-dwelling birds and have coloration so cryptic that you can be looking right at one and not see it, especially if it employs its “look like a reed” stance, with bill raised towards the sky. Like other members of the Heron family, American Bitterns possess plumes. These large, white shoulder feathers are visible only at this time of year, during territorial and courtship displays and just prior to copulation, when they are erected. Not only do these plumes impress female bitterns, but they make it much easier for humans to spot the displaying males.

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