I don’t blame the least bittern. If somebody had named me Least Bob, I would hide, too. Yet we continue to give demeaning names to the least flycatcher, least sandpiper, and least tern, while exalting the great blue heron, great egret, great black-backed gull, and great horned owl. We even celebrate the greater yellowlegs and greater scaup, thus shaming the lesser yellowlegs and lesser scaup. Last month, I journeyed to Colorado to witness the mating dances of the greater prairie-chicken and the lesser prairie-chicken and, frankly, I didn’t see much difference. They both were great in my eyes.
I presume that we have hurt the feelings of the lowly least bittern, and that is why he hides. The least bittern is the diminutive cousin of the American bittern, which is nearly three times larger. Both bitterns hide in the reeds and hunt through stealth. But the American bittern wades through the shallow water, while the least bittern clings to the reeds and probes from above. This behavior actually allows the least bittern to forage in deeper waters than its longer-legged cousin, provided there are reeds for clinging.
The least bittern is elusive in Maine. It’s also endangered. It favors emergent marshes full of cattails. Such marshes are often created by beavers running amok. Since we prefer that they not flood our roads and homes, the beaver’s marsh-creating tendencies are kept in check. On the whole, we’ve learned to share the landscape with beavers, but this has resulted in fewer places for least bitterns to live. Habitat loss has caused their numbers to decline, but we really don’t know how bad the decline is because they are nearly invisible.
So when Dave Small photographed a least bittern in the Essex Woods marsh in Bangor a week ago, the news was greeted with excitement among area birders. How convenient! – A least bittern in the city along the edge of a popular walking path. I did see one in Essex Woods last year, too, but not in time to photograph it. They occur elsewhere in Bangor, and are known to inhabit the Penjajawoc Marsh behind Home Depot. My favorite place to find them is in Stowers Meadows marsh in Stockton Springs, also known as the Sandy Point Game Management Area. However, a canoe is required to find them there.
The least bittern is among the world’s smallest members of the heron family. It stands only about a foot tall, still large enough that it should be relatively easy to spot. However, it is cryptically colored and shares the American bittern’s habit of freezing when threatened, pointing its bill skyward and blending into the cattails. When found, it prefers to slink away, melting into the cattails rather than taking flight. It hunts stealthily, and is most often spotted while flying just over the reeds when changing foraging locations. During breeding season, it utters a quiet kuk-kuk-kuk that birders can home in on.
Emergent marshes are home to several other secretive species. Essex Woods has a good supply of rails, both sora and Virginia. Rails are small, chicken-like birds that conceal themselves among the reeds. The expression “skinny as a rail” refers to their unusually narrow build. A plumper bird would jiggle the grasses when slipping between the reeds, giving away its location, but skinny rails manage the feat undetected.
There is a drawback to being invisible. Predators can’t see you, but neither can your rivals. It would be easy for silent competitors to stumble into each other, provoking unnecessary territorial disputes. So rails resort to calling regularly. They have several different vocalizations that help them communicate, and these disclose their perceived territories to other rails.
Rails are intensely jealous of their turf and squabble regularly. Even rails of different species quarrel. Sora and Virginia rail often respond to each other’s calls, sometimes leading to confrontation. A couple of years ago, I watched a sora step out of the grasses and climb the bank on the right side of the Essex Woods trail, while a calling Virginia rail approached secretly from the left. They met right in the middle of the trail, exchanged a few unpleasantries, and then returned to their own sides none the worse for wear.
So it was that during an Audubon walk I led at Essex Woods last week, one noisy sora stepped out of the shadows and posed for photos near the edge of our trail. It’s mating season, baby. Throw caution to the wind.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.