Bitterns occupy the Piney Woods marshes

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

• Louisiana Ecrevisse, Boyce LA

Spring brings our smallest "heron" to the marshes associated with water bodies in our piney woods. Although its wing span - 17 inches - and length - 13 inches - are greater than those of a meadowlark, a Least Bittern weighs about the same. These diminutive birds winter in the tropics but nest across the eastern USA. They are strong fliers crossing the Gulf of Mexico, twice a year.

In flight, Least Bitterns are impossible to miss. Their long necks are curved against their bodies. So, don't look for a bird flying with a long neck. Their backs are black. Their breasts, necks and faces are a bright buffy color. The leading edges of their wings are also a bright buffy color (some say yellow-gold) but the ends of the wings and trailing edges are black. The undersides of their wings are gray and their bodies, from below, are white.

In a marsh, Least Bitterns are consummate camouflage specialists. When they perceive danger, they assume a posture with their heads extended straight up and their bodies oriented toward the threat. With dark yellow-orange and white striped necks, they blend into the marsh vegetation. As needed the bitterns will slowly orient their bodies toward the threat and move with the vegetation as it bends back and forth if there is any wind.

The vertical posture assumed by hiding Least Bitterns leads to the common name of "sun seeker". Their much larger, huge by comparison, cousins the American Bitterns use the same trick to avoid detection by predators and are also referred to as "sun seekers". Some Cajuns refer to the birds as "gros bec du solei" - big beaks of the sun.

Least Bitterns are at home in marsh grass moving about above the water by grasping the plants with their long dexterous toes. They typically assume a straddling posture holding onto separate stalks. In fact, they can feed and nest above very deep water because they never go into the water, with the exception of catching prey including small fish, aquatic insects, tadpoles, and crawfish at the water's surface with their long, pointed bills.

In good feeding areas, Least Bitterns will create platforms of vegetation to facilitate hunting. They also build nests on such platforms well away from the eyes of potential predators. The nests are covered with vegetation that is bent over the platforms.

How adept are Least Bitterns in moving through tight places? The great bird artist John James Audubon had a captive Least Bittern once. The bird's width was about 2.5 inches. It was able to move through a space between two books that were 1.5 inches apart.

Wading birds are not songsters and Least Bitterns are no exceptions. To me, the call sounds like a low pitch "coo, coo, coo" but some field guides say that the sound is "poo, poo, poo"! The birds are most vocal at dawn and dusk.

Because Least Bitterns are so small, they are prey for all manner of marsh predators. Water snakes, snapping turtles, bull frogs, alligators, raccoons, and predaceous birds will catch and eat Least Bitterns!