Least Bittern

Lest Bittern by David J. L'Hoste
© David J. L'Hoste
Ixobrychus exilis
Bitterns, although members of the heron tribe, are generally different from herons in many regards, particularly in their actions and behavior patterns. They are entirely marsh dwellers and are extremely secretive in their habits. Most often they are seen on the edges of mud flats in the marsh or on the edges of canal banks. At the slightest alarm they freeze and point the bill upward. The vertical streaks on the breast and throat align with the yellowish bill. The bird as a whole, even to the yellow eyes, becomes part of its mosaic background of marsh grasses, blending perfectly with it and becoming almost invisible. This habit of pointing the bill skyward earns for bitterns the name "sun-gazer" and provides one of the most striking examples of a behavior pattern associated with a device of protective coloration. That the bird instinctively knows that its upturned bill and vertically streaked breast blend with the grasses behind it is shown by the fact that, as the observer circles to one side or the other, the bittern slowly turns so as to keep its breast in sight.
The diminutive Least Bittern, which is similar to a meadowlark in body bulk though not in shape, stands out from all other herons because of its very small size and buffy-colored wing patches, which contrast with its black back. Although resembling in general habits its larger relative the American Bittern, it differs in the main season of its stay with us. All but an occasional individual have left us by the closing days of October. A few early migrants reappear in our marshes in late February or early March, but most arrivals occur during the first part of April. Surprisingly, the paths followed make this seemingly weak flier the fourth in the quartet of trans-gulf migrants among the herons. The species is a common summer resident in cattail marshes throughout Louisiana. The nest is suspended between stalks of marsh plants and is a woven mass of vegetation, sometimes containing twigs. The four or five eggs are bluish white. --George H. Lowery, Jr., 1974, Louisiana Birds

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