Most herons and related birds are quite popular even with non-birders. The stately, somber Great Blue and the flashy white egrets are, now that we’ve gotten past putting bits of them on hats, a decorative element on ponds, marshes, and muddy-edged rivers, companions to fishermen, photo opportunities for happy tourists.
They are also, according to a 2005 study, among the more intelligent birds. They use a wide and flexible array of techniques to acquire a wide and flexible array of foodstuffs. Some use their wings to create shade on the water and lure shy fish to what seems like shelter; others shuffle and dance to turn up interesting items from the muck; they are even known to use bait. And when mammals are on the menu, they are also known to subdue their struggling prey by holding it under water – a technique contraindicated with fish or amphibians.
I want to make it clear that I am not underselling herons, here.
But the American Bittern… something of a wallflower, compared to the rest of the family. In habits, more akin to the mysterious skulking rail that the forthright Great Blue. Still, the bittern too has some handy tricks. For instance, when an American Bittern would like very much not to be observed – and this is most of the time – it can freeze among the reeds that are its habitat and turn its beak to the sky. Marked with strong vertical lines, the sky-facing bittern becomes nearly invisible among the vertical stems.
Of course, if it’s not among vertical stems, the trick doesn’t work. If it’s sixty feet up in a tree just above the reedless Ravine in Prospect Park, for example, it’s quite likely I’ll see it. Especially once a clump of a dozen birders gather around to stare jubilantly at the unexpected early spring sighting, tipping me off that something big is going down (or staying up, as the case may be).
So yes, I had a good Saturday. The bittern sat quite still up there, beak to the sky, ignoring the rabble below. Maybe it should try working some more of that vaunted heron adaptability into its repertoire.
Other sightings included my first completely gold Goldfinch of the season, a Red-tailed Hawk plucking a dead branch, a pair of Downy Woodpeckers dancing with each other, and nesting behavior from American Robin, Canada Goose, and Mute Swan (no big surprises there); substantial movement of Palm Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and Hermit Thrushes, with Northern Flickers also still numerous; single Louisiana Waterthrush, Pine Warbler, and Eastern Towhee; and an important non-sighting, a complete absence of Northern Shovelers on the lake (though there were still several Ruddy Ducks present).