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American Bittern

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American Bitterns walk through the grass at an agonizingly slow pace, pausing for long intervals between each step, seemingly out of an abundance of caution. Their long necks typically stretch out first before their bodies follow, and they may even pause midway with one foot in the air.

American Bittern
• Length: 28 inches
• Wingspan: 42 inches
• Season: Winter
More about American Bitterns.
Where they are, and when.

When startled, they freeze, with their neck and long bill pointing straight up, sometimes swaying gently, like reeds in the wind. The American Bittern’s deliberate movements combine with effective camouflage to make it almost undetectable in the brown winter vegetation. Its body is a mottled brown, and its neck is painted with brown vertical stripes like the strands of surrounding grass.

The one time it moves quickly is when it is striking at prey, such as small fish, lizards, frogs, insects and even small mammals. It flies, but not in an elegant way.

American Bitterns are winter visitors to the Gulf Coast. They migrate to the northern plains and Canada to mate in the summer.

February 22, 2008

I was leaning over the railing by the boardwalk at the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge when an American Bittern visually jumped out from forest of brown reeds in front of me the way the picture suddenly emerges from one of those Magic Eye puzzles. If I looked away for a moment, it was hard to see it again, even though I was just a few yards away. Of course, it saw me long ago and was frozen in place, its head pointing upward. I watched it for a while, but it was like watching grass grow, and I suppose that was its strategy.

About Scott Clark

I’m a digital journalist who’s worked as a photographer, reporter, producer and editor. My interest in the natural history of my surroundings reaches back to my early days beachcombing on the Jersey coast, rowing my boat on a quiet lake in Missouri and, more recently, discovering the mountains and backwoods of Montana, where I was born.

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