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Least Bittern

A richly vegetated marsh in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park near Akron, home to a celebrity avian family in weeks past. I apologize for the rather poor photo above, but this is what one gets when shooting landscapes in harsh midday sun without a filter. I meant to shoot some lay of the land images upon first arrival not long after dawn, but became engaged with shooting birds right off the bat.

For weeks, reports had been circulating of an especially cooperative clan of Least Bitterns in this place. North America's smallest heron is not an especially easy bird to find in these parts - listed as threatened in Ohio - and even less easy to photograph, at least well. Being a fan of herons in general and Least Bitterns in particular, I finally made the pilgrimage on August 21.

It didn't take long to find the birds. A pair of adults successfully raised four (so reported, I only saw two) offspring. At the risk of redundancy, the little leasts were quite talkative, and their coocooish murmurings drew the assembled birders' attention to them. Here, one of the juveniles peeks from a nearly impenetrable wall of cattails. This is often how one sees these little waders - peering from a dense mass of vegetation. Note its exceptionally large feet, the better to adeptly clamber around on plant stems.

A Least Bittern is comparable to a Blue Jay in weight, and it's not much larger in dimensions. It would take about nine of them to equal the mass of its bigger brother, the American Bittern. Even more would be required to match the weight of a Great Blue Heron - 30 to be nearly exact.

This photo illustrates why Least Bitterns can be devilishly hard to see. They are prone to skulking in thick cattail stands like this. Often the only evidence of their presence is their vocalizations, some of which sound much like a cuckoo. Even if I had only seen the birds as presented in these first photos, I would have been pleased. But the juveniles, having not yet learned to hide themselves, were prone to coming right out in the open. I never did see an adult, though, although I'm told they too on occasion show nicely.

After a bit, one of the young birds fluttered out of the cattails and into the much more open spaces of the spatterdock-dominated part of the marsh. Some wispy down feathers can still be seen jutting from the bird's crown. This one put on quite a show for those of us in attendance, and offered wonderful photo opportunities.

As this bittern matures, it will probably become less obliging of its human admirers. Least Bitterns habitually forage along the edge of dense emergent marsh vegetation, as in the first two photos of the bird. In such haunts, they are often partly concealed and if disturbed can instantly melt away into the vegetation. To see one out in the open, posing on a lily pad, was quite a treat.

This beautiful elfin heron was probably quite common in Ohio's marshes in days of yore. Since European settlement, about 90% of Ohio's wetlands have been lost to agriculture and other forms of development, a trend typical throughout Midwestern America's breadbasket. The bittern and many other marsh birds have declined accordingly, and now seeing Least Bitterns around here is a big deal and an exceptional treat.


Lisa Greenbow said…
My favorite heron too. Sweet.
Jack and Brenda said…
Excellent photos of it!

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