Tracking bittern can be difficult

Posted May 21, 2010, at 9:32 p.m.

The light breeze rustled the newly emerging leaves on the trees as we walked the path heading toward the third pond off Taylor Road in Orono.

Paul and I had already been treated to some intriguing interactions between a pair of broad-winged hawks the afternoon of my brief visit to the area. After the hawks had departed, the blackflies had convinced us that maybe heading back wouldn’t be a bad idea.

However, we changed our minds when we ran into a mutual acquaintance of ours out on the trail. Ed Grew is the consummate birder and nature enthusiast, and he walks everywhere. I’m convinced he must know each square foot of the woods, meadows and wetlands in the Orono area.

He’d just come from the third pond, and after we’d briefly caught up with each other, he reported seeing an American bittern plus a pair of Canada geese with young. That convinced us to continue on to the third pond.

After bidding Ed goodbye, we set off at a brisk pace until we neared the pond. Slowly and quietly, we crept out of the trailhead into the wet meadow surrounding the pond. It was quiet, save for the wind in the trees, until something that sounded suspiciously like a saw-whet owl drifted to us from the surrounding forest. The hoots — if that is what they were — repeated three times before going silent. We didn’t hear them again.

As we scanned the edge of the pond for the bittern, its odd vocalization suddenly boomed out from an area that was above a beaver dam and surrounded by thickly growing shrubs.

We attempted to reach this area by skirting the hill that led down to it, but the ground was too boggy due to the recent rain. Instead, we went back toward the trailhead and turned left. Here the ground was higher and drier, except for a few rivulets coming from the dam. The softly running water made runnels through the tussocks of lush green grass, the sun was warm on our backs, and the slight breeze carried the scent of green, growing things. To me there seemed to be an almost magical feeling to the place.

When we reached the rim of the dam, we stopped and listened before trying to get a view into the upper pond. No such luck — it was too thick with emergent vegetation and other moisture-loving plants. At length we finally headed out, disappointed at not being able to spot the visually-elusive bittern.

I had more luck later on that evening, though.

I’d decided to visit some of my old haunts, so I went for a ride along the University of Maine bike trail. As I reached Witter Farm Road, I was thrilled to hear a bittern calling repeatedly from the small partially-wooded wetland at the low end of the field.

This little wetland wasn’t quite as lush as the one I’d visited earlier. Last year’s dead cattails hunched low to the ground, and they seemed sere and stark. So when I trained my binoculars on the spot from which the bittern’s vocalization seemed to emanate, there it was, sticking out like a sore thumb. Of course, it was a good dis-tance away, so the view I was getting was no where near National Geographic-quality. Still, I was delighted, for these birds are often only heard but not seen.

All in all, I was glad I had visited the area. I didn’t get to meet with all of my friends — all the more reason to visit again soon, and in addition, have more good bird stories to tell.

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