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Nature: Show-off herons shine in national park

A juvenile least bittern in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park

September 17, 2017

NATURE
Jim McCormac

Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s 51 square miles preserves a treasure trove of biological diversity. Ohio’s only national park, it occupies the state’s most populous region and is bookended by Akron and Cleveland.

Although waterfalls, forests, rock formations, streams and other scenic items of interest lure visitors, it was one of the world’s smallest herons that drew me to the park a few weeks back.

For most of the summer, an uncharacteristically conspicuous pair of least bitterns put on a show along a boardwalk that bisects a lush marsh. As an Ohio breeding bird, this one is especially noteworthy. The least bittern is listed as threatened by the Ohio Division of Wildlife, and nesting locales are few and far between.

The least bittern is a true elfin in a family of typically robust birds. One of these diminutive waders is about the size and weight of a blue jay. For comparison, its much-better-known relative, the great blue heron, has a wingspan over four times longer than the bittern’s 17-inch set of flappers. The larger heron is nearly four times as long and weighs 30 times more than the bittern’s paltry 80 grams.

Size doesn’t dictate beauty, though, and the least bittern is exquisite. The bird’s feathers are a palette of rich chestnut, tan and cream. Greenish-yellow skin forms goggles around the eyes, and a stiletto-like bill fronts the face. Perhaps most amazing are the little bird’s big feet. They are disproportionately huge, the greatly elongated toes useful in tightly clutching the stalks of aquatic plants.

One reason the Cuyahoga Valley birds caused such a stir was the ease of seeing them. I’ve seen a fair number of least bitterns over the years, but I’ve heard far more. They frequent the densest stands of cattails and other wetland plants, and are often impossible to see. Only the curious cuckoo-like murmurings of the herons give them away.

My experience was typical of most visiting birders. Shortly after my early-morning arrival, one of the bitterns was spotted lurking at the edge of some cattails. Before long, another bird joined it. For the rest of the morning, great views were freely had.

Better yet, the extroverts were two juveniles — especially good news, as nesting was obviously successful. The adult birds called regularly from the cattails, but they did not show themselves during my visit.

It was a rare experience to observe the bitterns clambering about vertical cattail stems, stabbing at small fish and frogs with their daggerlike bills. At one point, a bird popped out in the open on some spatterdock lilies, enabling me to take the accompanying photo.

We have not been good stewards of wetlands, and least bitterns and many other species have suffered accordingly. These tiny herons were once common in Ohio wetlands, but they have declined tremendously. For instance, famed ornithologist Milton Trautman recorded nearly 100 pairs nesting most years around Buckeye Lake in the 1920s and ’30s. Today, there are none.

It is fortunate that we’ve set aside natural areas such as Cuyahoga Valley National Park to protect some of our biodiversity.

FURTHER AFIELD

Jim McCormac will present "A Romp through Ohio's Flora and Fauna," with photos, at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26 at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, 505 W. Whittier St. The presentation is free, and no reservations are required.


Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

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