Well, I thought getting some great head shots of the wood stork was going to be the high point of my trip, but hands down, it was the American bittern action, I captured at Viera Wetlands yesterday. Now, the American bittern is a bird I can see in my home state of Minnesota, but not easily and certainly not in good photography light. One thing I am fascinated with birds is how birds respond to human activity in different states. In Florida, the birds are totally mellow: osprey right on the street lamps like red-tailed hawks. Herons and egrets will let you get within 10 feet of them. We have some of these same species in Minnesota, but they are way more cagey--it's just an interesting regional difference.
Bitterns are birds that skulk around in reeds, using their stripey plumage to hide in the reeds--it's hard to find them, you generally hear them more than you see them and when you do see them, it's usually when they are slinking back into the reeds and out of your sight. When I got the above photo of a bittern disappearing into some vegetation with the sun behind it, I considered myself very lucky.
Then we got to this spot and a fellow birder mentioned to our group that there was an American bittern in here that is a real ham. I'm a ham, I would even say chickadees and nuthatches are hams. But bitterns as hams? They are more of the Howard Hughes type. But, the light was perfect, I had a flash card to fill and couldn't resist a chance to digiscope a bittern. We couldn't see it and buddy Clay Taylor said that we were probably going to have to walk around and just work it. Clay and I assumed our positions with our scopes and our cameras and waited. Less than sixty seconds later, we saw the bittern.
It skulked out of the grasses and I got this photo. I thought this was pretty darned exciting and very bloggable--and a good representation of how you usually see a bittern through a scope or binoculars. Part of the bird and obscured by vegetation. I congratulated myself in my head for a digiscope well done. But, it didn't end there.
The bird continued to search the water at the base of the vegetation for fish and seemed completely oblivious to the pack of humans on the nearby road freaking out at how close we were to an American bittern.
The bittern eventually came out fairy close to the road. If you look at the above photo, you see the end of the barrel of my spotting scope and at the top center of the photo is the bittern. I was dying at this point. It was sunny, the temperature was in the upper seventies, a slight breeze was blowing and I was watching a really cool and generally hard to see bird.
And then it poked its head out and continued its "relentless warfare on fish." Some of the members of our group were not birders and did find the bittern cool, but I'm sure they were wondering why Clay and I just planted ourselves for the better part of an hour photographing the bittern.
The bird was so close, I had a tough time getting anything but head shots, so I moved myself further back and was able to start getting the whole body in the frame. What amazed me was look at the size of the head in relation to the body--tiny and skinny head governing a large body in back.
At a couple of point, it puffed up slightly. I wondered what that was about. I once was fortunately enough to watch a bittern give it's call and it's really interesting. They inhale air first and their bodies blow up like a big brown beach ball and the bird deflates as it gives that pumper call. Here, it puffed up once? Is it giving some kind of call that is inaudible to me? What was it about? Still, so much to learn.
Here's a final photo, check out the wet feathers on the chin--I saw this bird get at least five fish, who knows how much it was getting as it would periodically disappear into the grasses. Though the above is the last photo, below is a video of the bittern. There is a spot on the lens and yes, I am aware of the spot. I've been uploading some photos to You Tube in the last twenty-four hours to blog about this week. Some people subscribe to the videos on there and see them right away. And a few have felt the need to let me know that I have a spot on my lens. It's a big spot and fairly obvious and it amuses me to know end that the commentors feel the need to let me know, on the off chance I didn't see it. So, as you're watching this, yes, I know that there is a spot on the lens.
Oh! And I forgot to mention, you will hear fish crows calling in the back ground--sounds like a crow that swallowed a kazoo going "ha ha". Also, watch how the bittern wiggles back and forth--that's how it's focusing on what it's about to stab it at. Alas, the flash card I was using when I took the video filled up and the camera stopped filming. Immediately after the video stops, the bittern nailed a fish.