I observed a new life bird during a recent trip to coastal South Carolina. Birders like to make additions to their life list, which is a compilation of all the species of birds observed over the years. I haven’t made any additions to my life list since 2013, so adding this new bird felt long overdue.
The new bird technically belongs to the group of long-legged waders — herons, egrets and a few other allied birds — often seen in South Carolina coastal areas. Most of these birds are often described as elegant, majestic or stately, but that’s not the case with this particular bird. My sighting also helped me cross a family of birds off my list. The least bittern I observed on June 11, 2016, in the marsh at Huntington Beach State Park near Pawleys Island, South Carolina, represented the final member of the heron family in the United States that I needed for my life list.
Some life birds on my list are rare birds that have unaccountably strayed into the region while others are birds I deliberately set out to find during visits to area where they are prevalent. I wasn’t actively looking to add any life birds to my list during my recent South Carolina visit, so the least bittern also represented a very pleasant surprise.
The least bittern has been found in wetlands in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee, but I’ve never been in the right place at the right time to find this bird closer to home. I have seen a few American bitterns, which are a larger relative of this diminutive member of the heron clan. I didn’t have the same degree of difficult adding an American bittern to my list. Years ago, while birding with Reece Jamerson, an American bittern emerged from vegetation at the edge of a ditch in a flooded pasture and proceeded to put on quite the show. To my eternal regret, that sighting predated my habit of always carrying a camera with me while birding.
The least bittern is the smallest of North America’s herons and is one of the smallest of the world’s herons. Although it achieves a body length of 11 to 14 inches, this bird weighs only about three-and-a-half ounces. If you’re wondering how birds can achieve this lightness of being, remember that they’re comprised mostly of hollow bones and feathers. By way of comparison, the chipmunks so fond of raiding our bird feeders weigh a couple more ounces than the heaviest least bittern. The dwarf bittern of Africa and the black-backed bittern of Australia rival our native least bittern for the title of world’s smallest heron. In flight, the least bittern’s wings can unfurl as much as 18 inches.
One ironic twist is that I saw a least bittern a few days prior to what I am listing as the official date of observation for this life list addition. When I visited Huntington Beach State Park on June 5 upon first arriving I was walking the marsh causeway when a small heron flew into a dense area of vegetation. I got only an instant’s glimpse of a small heron that I was convinced was a least bittern. However, with such a short duration for the sighting, I chose not to count that sighting. When I observed the species again a few days later, however, that boosted my confidence in my call on that first sighting.
The wetlands at the park provide perfect habitat for nesting least bitterns. The least bittern is not a rare bird, but its lifestyle makes it an exceptionally difficult bird to observe. This bird acquired its reputation for elusiveness almost as soon as it was first encountered by European settlers. Early ornithologists agree that the least bittern is a master at concealment. Several of them write about the ability of these tiny herons to blend with the reeds and other vegetation in their wetland abodes. John James Audubon, the early naturalist and famous painter of North America’s birds, is credited with discovering that the least bittern possesses the ability to compress its body in order to facilitate its passage through a space no more than an inch wide.
These birds usually shun flight. Their preferred mode of getting through the dense vegetation of the marsh is to straddle reeds and cattails as they climb the vegetation. While some marsh birds, such as clapper rails, are fairly vocal, the least bittern’s elusive manner extends even to its vocalizations. The least bittern is rarely heard outside of the nesting season, although a startled bird may produce an excited cackling. The least bittern I observed was completely silent as it slowly merged back into the dense cattails of the marsh.
In appearance, the least bittern is a distinctive bird with a dark crown patch, a rusty-orange neck and sides, a white chin patch and an orange and white striped throat. Its eyes and bill are yellow. The legs are green in the front and yellow in the back. Males and females are similar in appearance with males looking slightly more vibrant.
A female least bittern will lay between five and seven eggs, but a range of threats face her hatchlings. Crows and raptors, marsh mammals and alligators and other reptiles are potential predators. An unlikely peril is posed by the small marsh wren, which will puncture the eggs of least bitterns and other wetland birds nesting in its territory.
Incidentally, the previous bird added to my life list back was a black-legged kittiwake observed on Oct. 29, 2013, at Holston Dam in Sullivan County, Tennessee.
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