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.