The Apparition


Scanning the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge’s water lily-filled pond for waterfowl or alligators, I glanced toward the shoreline and found myself eye-to-eye with what only could be called an apparition.

Usually associated with the Virgin Mary, departed pets, or an assortment of unidentifiable ghosts, ‘apparition’ also is defined as “anything that appears unexpectedly or in an extraordinary way.” The word certainly applied to this American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus): a secretive, often difficult to observe bird that I’d never seen, never thought about, and certainly didn’t expect to find patrolling a local pond.

Apparently the inability of birders to track down American bitterns is common. A secretive marsh bird with impressive camouflage, they often fade away into similarly-colored vegetation, or remain unnoticed as they freeze to avoid detection: neck and bill pointed toward the sky, and eyes cast downward. During the half-hour or more that I watched this bird, it never moved from its spot, seemingly content to raise or lower its neck as I moved from one place to another on the boardwalk.

The bird can perplex even the experts. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes that, “Because of this species’ secretive nature and inaccessible habitats, remarkably little is known about the basic aspects of its biology, including sources of mortality, habitat use, mating systems, and population structure.”

Now that I know the bird can be found here, I’ll be watching for it, and hoping to hear its ‘song’ in the spring. 

Dr. Frederic Reid, director of conservation programs at Ducks Unlimited, describes the American Bittern call as sounding like the phrase ‘pump-er-lunk.’  “You’re in the middle of the marsh, you hear this noise, and it sounds mechanical,” he says.

Listening to the so-called song on the Cornell site, I had to agree; it brought to mind the sound of the hand pump in my grandmother’s back yard. I’m only glad I saw the bird before hearing it. If I’d heard it first, I might have dismissed it as a piece of malfunctioning equipment.


Comments always are welcome.

61 thoughts on “The Apparition

  1. Certainly a bird heard far more often than seen, but in my experience once one is sighted it can be viewed quite easily, and for several minutes. It is comical at times to see them freeze in the open, bill pointing skywards, exactly as though they were camouflaged in the reeds. Great clear shot you achieved. Well done!

    1. I tend to grump a bit about needing a lens with more reach for birding, but in this case 225mm did the trick. I was close enough to capture some nice detail, but far enough away that the bird was willing to watch rather than flee.

      I was surprised by the bird’s lack of movement. Later, as I read about its habits, it all made sense. It probably helped that it was early morning, and no one else was walking the boardwalk or exploring the shoreline. It certainly was a memorable encounter.

    1. Thanks, Deb. That heron-like appearance helped me identify it quickly. It certainly does resemble the green heron: not only in body shape, but even in some of the markings. I was especially glad to find it standing against a green background rather than brown and drying reeds. In fact, if it had been standing in the cattails or reeds, I might never have seen it.

    1. Indeed, I did. It was a good morning all around. It began with the little moth in the rain lily and ended with the bushy bluestem. In between? This wonderful bird. It was a trifecta.

    1. It’s always fun to find an unexpected ‘something,’ but it’s even better to find an unidentified, unexpected ‘something.’ This was a real treat, and quite a gift.

    1. In fact, the green foliage helped him to stand out. I’m not sure I would have seen it, otherwise. Look at this post from Mia McPherson. How she managed to spot the bittern in all that beautiful grass, I don’t know. I suppose she’s right that her good eyesight’s one factor — and probably a lot of practice learning how to see, as well.

  2. I get the impression, admittedly uninformed, that not a lot of birds have such clearly defined vertical stripes. I’ve read that zebra stripes confuse predators, and I wonder if bitterns get a similar camouflage advantage.

    1. The green heron has similar stripes, but they’re far less obvious. That’s the only other bird I know of that has them, although there surely are others. When the bitterns elongate their bodies by pointing their beaks almost straight into the air, I’m sure it does help to camouflage them, especially if they’re in a landscape like this..

    1. I certainly was glad I’d changed to my long lens before heading down the boardwalk. Otherwise, I might have spooked it. It is a gorgeous bird, and I appreciated it giving me a chance for a nice, long look.

  3. Congratulations on a rare find, Linda. In all of my years of wandering in wilderness areas, I can’t recall ever seeing one. And it even hung out for you! –Curt

    1. That’s amazing, Curt. Given the details in this range map, it’s hard to imagine you haven’t seen one. On the other hand, every source I consulted referred to its secretive nature, so there could have been a bittern only feet away, and you never would have known it.

      Apparently more people hear them than see them. Be sure and click the link for the song; once you’ve heard it, you’ll know with certainty that one is around if you hear it again. (Here’s an idle thought: given their water-pump-like call, maybe we should name a group of bitterns the pump house gang.)

  4. Amazing photos. We have bitterns in NZ, equally secretive. My father had amazing eye-sight and actually spotted one from the car once (he was driving yet still managed to see it).

    1. One of the great events of my life was getting rid of my cataracts and getting new lenses implanted. It certainly increased my pleasure in the natural world once I could see it. What a great experience for your father. I occasionally see things while driving, but being able to spot a bittern is next-level.

    1. I suspect he’s just as interested in keeping the fish from spotting him, and likewise the predators. Next spring, I’ll know to listen for them. It would be as much fun to hear one as to see this one. I’m wondering now if I might have heard one sometime, and mistaken the sound for something like a poorly-maintained pump jack.

  5. Oh my goodness, it is beautiful, and you were surely captivated!

    I had a similar experience with the Rufescent Tiger Heron, which stalked very very slowly in thick cover in a citrus orchard. The Anis and other birds were squawking and protesting, and I thought they must have seen a snake. Of course I enjoyed your story about your own apparition!

    Fantastic job on capturing its essence!

    1. Just today I was checking on the news from Ecuador (austerity plan cancelled, etc.) and here you are.

      I looked up the tiger heron, and thought the adult looks a good bit like our tri-colored heron. I listened to its song and calls, too, but it has a way to go before it matches this bittern! I did think it was interesting that the description of its behavior was so similar: inconspicuous, solitary, given to a lot of standing around waiting for prey to come by. I do think the bittern is one of the most attractive birds I’ve seen. Of course the colorful ones always attract attention, but the variety of patterns and textures on this one really appeals.

    1. If someone had asked me to draw a bittern before I actually saw one, I don’t think I would have come close. It’s a far more beautiful bird than I could have imagined, and interesting, too. One of the little details that intrigued me is that its eyes naturally look downward, so while it’s standing around, beak to the sky, it still can keep an eye on whatever dinner might be swimming by. Who says you can’t do two things at once?

  6. I agree with the other commenters, and I’ll add that shooting it with 225mm focal depth is even more astounding! Glad you got to see this guy close-up. He’s really something to watch, especially when he catches something.

    PS – go to Brazos Bend with me in January … they’re everywhere and right off the path, oblivious to us.

    1. Brazos Bend would be fun, for sure. It’s funny — this was such an extraordinary experience that I don’t care right now if I ever see another bittern. But give me a week, and I will have seen something else, and I’ll be ready to go stalking a whole herd of bitterns — and whatever else is lurking around.

      I’m assuming that you’ve heard that crazy “song.” I’d love to come across some that are calling, but I suppose we have to wait for spring before that happens.

  7. What a lucky sighting. Excellent photos too.

    Will be interesting if you see this bird again as it is quite visible amongst the greenery. Perhaps it is more invisible when standing among dry grasses with that brown/cream stripe.

    1. You’ve raised an interesting issue: the nature of luck. I’m going to think about that for a bit, and perhaps post a few words about it — thanks.

      These can be hard to spot in other kinds of marsh foliage. A bird photographer I follow, Mia McPherson, happened to discover her own bittern on the same weekend, but look how different the environment was, and how much harder it was to spot the bittern.

  8. Oh, that funny net of association where our now is forever woven into all our was’s. A fragment of song came to mind, an Irish song translated from the Gaelic about finding a dead bittern a particularly and predictably Irish take on a sad but inevitable occurrence. This secretive bird is not exclusively ours. It has cousins across the pond, which apparently live equally enigmatic lives. You’d think a bird with such pronounced plumage would be easy to spot.

    1. I wonder if the song might be based in the poem written by Walter Richard Cassels titled “The Bittern.? In any case, it certainly does have that predictably Irish feel to it.

      When I was looking at the worldwide distribution of bitterns, I saw that those overseas species are facing some of the same difficulties as ours: particularly the loss of habitat. It’s clear that this one’s choice to move away from the grasses and toward the edge of the pond, with all its greenery, made it much easier for me to see it. If it had been standing among vertical marsh grasses,it would have been much trickier to pick it out. Impossible, maybe.

    1. Since I often envy the birders, with their big lenses and big budgets for travel, this was a nice reminder that a decent pair of eyes and a willingness to spend some time in the neighborhood can yield rewards, too.

  9. Your photos are wonderful. Is it synchronicity that you are reporting about this rare apparition at the same time as one has set the local birding community in Colorado Springs abuzz (or should that be abittern)? One has been hanging out a local reservoir, busy with fisherpeople and dogs, and it has been a thrill to observe. Beholding one is always special, and I share your fascination for this bird’s behavior and vocalization.

    1. It’s triply interesting that the same weekend I spotted this one, Mia McPherson found one in Utah. It’s much like learning a new word. Once encountered, it’s suddenly everywhere. It seems that the bitterns shy and secretive nature is relative; at least a few are willing to show themselves, to our great delight.

      1. I have had similar experiences with new words, and new birds. At times I have searched for a bird in vain for years, only to encounter it regularly after breaking that initial barrier. Ever since my first acquaintance with bitterns, they have held a special appeal. Good for all three of us for having been delighted by one.

    1. Have you read about how they produce that call? They apparently swallow air, and then use their muscles/vocal cords somehow to force the air out — rather like a bagpipe, actually. In fact, the sound’s as strange as a bagpipe. I did read that their call’s low register allows it to carry farther. I hope I get to hear it one day.

        1. That’s wonderful. Apart from the call, I enjoyed seeing another behavior I’ve read about: the bird’s tendency to sway back and forth like the grasses while it stalks. Some said it’s probably a behavior meant to help camouflage the bird, in the same way that its appearance does.

          1. I would think the movement would help it be seen, but I’m no bird behaviorist. I’ve seen images of them in the reeds and tall grasses with their head stretched upward and those chest stripes helping for camouflage.

  10. Your bittern is so handsome. I can see why he might be hard to spot, given his coloring and the terrain. I wonder if he’d be even harder in the spring, before the blooms, amidst the twigs and branches.

    1. It’s hard to say, Jeanie. I know they’re almost impossible to spot in the fall, amid the autumn-colored grasses. I read a few articles by people who’ve never seen one, despite hearing them for years, and being quite intentional about searching for them. I suppose that was the magic of this encounter. I just turned around, and there it was. Amazing, really.

  11. Once again, Linda, you were in the right place at the right time to capture photos of this bird. Since you say even experienced birders might miss spotting one, I don’t feel too bad about never seeing a bittern. He has a lovely striped chest though, doesn’t he?

    1. All of his feathers are beautiful. I especially like the contrast between those stripes and the softer, muted feathers on his cute little rear end. It was such a surprise to turn around and see him just standing there, staring at me. I was on my way back down the boardwalk after taking the photos of the little moth asleep in the rain lily, and had put my telephoto lens back on in case there might be a bird to photograph. There was!

  12. What a beautiful creature, lucky you being able to observe it for so long. When hubs and I visit the the Lakes, we always spot a heron in the same spot, and always look out for it.You’ll spot this bird again, they are creatures of habit!xxx

    1. I think you’re right about the possibility of seeing it again. The moorhen I discovered with her babies at Brazoria stayed in the same territory, allowing me to watch them grow up, and there’s an American kestrel that’s been in the same tree three years running.We have our favorite spots — why shouldn’t they? It’s such a striking bird — now, I want to hear one calling.

    1. Isn’t it pretty? It reminds me, just a bit, of the brown thrasher, which isn’t as large or as distinctly marked as the bittern, but there are similarities. I do hope I see it again — and hear it, too.

  13. What excellent shots of this very frustrating bird. The only time I ever really saw one was when a Bittern flew up out of a wetland I was walking near. Every time I went back to that place, I looked and looked, hoping to find it, since I knew it was there once at least. But no! Better luck to you! But even if you don’t see it again, you had a gem of a sighting this time.

    1. Last weekend I mentioned the sighting to a couple of birders at the refuge, and they said, “Oh, yes — they can be seen at the edge of Alligator Pond.” So they’re around, it just will be a matter of taking the time to scan the grasses for them. I’d love to see some babies; they’re almost unbearably cute. And that call! At least if I hear it now, I’ll know what I’m looking for!

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