Least Bittern – A Closer Look

Way too many mornings this summer, I was up between 4:00 – 5:00 a.m. and on the road within 20 minutes, headed to Kiowa Wetland. My goal was to be in my kayak and on the water at least 15 minutes before sunrise. My hope was that I could find a cooperative subject and get into position by the time the sun lit up the cattails. Seldom did that pan out. Least Bitterns are secretive and can hide, even in plain sight, all too well. But through diligence, I returned time after time to get some behavior shots of this species.

Bitterns appear to be pretty short in stature when they are perched and not active. Like other members of the heron family, they stand motionless watching for the slightest movement in the water.

The Least Bittern caught a fish and now has to figure out how to get it repositioned in its bill, head first, in order to swallow it. Sony a1 + 100-400mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter @ 560mm, ISO 500 f/8, 1/2500. ©Stanley Buman.

It is quite impressive to watch a Least Bittern hunt. After detecting movement, it stretches out its neck and legs, and strikes very fast. Also, it amazes me how they can pick themselves back up out of the water by the power of their legs.

A Least Bittern has a lot longer reach than it appears. Note how the powerful feet are clasped around the cattails. Sony a1 + 100-400mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter @ 280mm, ISO 640 f/8, 1/3200. ©Stanley Buman.

Bitterns are considerably smaller than Great Blue Herons. In fact, the larger herons have been known to eat bitterns.

When a Great Blue Heron flew over, the Least Bittern tracked its movement. Note also its upright posture, making it look more like a piece of vegetation (tall and slender). Sony a1 + 600mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter @ 840mm, ISO 640 f/5.6, 1/3200. ©Stanley Buman.

Bitterns don’t just pick prey off the surface of the water. They can plunge their head deep underwater to grasp a meal.

This Least Bitterns is after a small fish, well under the surface of the water. Sony a1 + 600mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter @ 840mm, ISO 2500 f/8, 1/320. ©Stanley Buman.

The bittern is a master at moving through the cattails. It is adept at grasping vegetation with its long toes, enabling the bird to move either horizontally or vertically through the vegetation, and can disappear quickly.

A Least Bittern moves through the wetland, using its long powerful legs and occasionally its wings when there is a long gap to cross. Sony a1 + 600mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter @ 840mm, ISO 640f/8, 1/2500. ©Stanley Buman.

The shape of the bittern makes it look a little awkward in flight with its gangly legs. But its long powerful wings help it take to the air.

The Least Bittern can slink through the cattails with ease. But it is also a capable flier, when flight is necessary. Sony a1 + 100-400mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter @ 280mm, ISO 640 f/8, 1/3200. ©Stanley Buman.

Behavior shots of animals can be challenging to record. However, if you spend enough time, you can get a glimpse into their daily lives. Imagine stopping in for a short visit with a friend. The friend will probably drop everything and pay attention to you. Now imagine spending days at their home. You will learn a lot more about their routine. It is the same with wildlife. Seeing animals is one thing. But truly spending time with a species gives you a much greater appreciation of their adaptations and what it takes to survive, day to day.

14 thoughts on “Least Bittern – A Closer Look”

  1. Loved these photos. The least bittern is a fascinating little bird. I have a friend, not a birder, who snarkily asks me about the “most bittern.” Thanks for getting up so early so many times!

  2. Jerry Von Ehwegen

    WOW!! Great pictures! I was able to see a Least Bittern flying at Kiowa earlier this year. I went there because of a Post I saw from you on the IOU Listserve. Thanks!

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