Spring-time Thunder-Pumpers

ArrayJune 7, 2017 at 9:00 am

By Tom Schaeffer, Regional Wildlife Biologist Ever heard of a “Thunder-Pumper?”  How about “water-belcher?”   I hadn’t either until I did some online searching.   These colloquialisms for a Maine marsh bird come pretty close to describing the spring courting call of the male American Bittern.  I was treated about a week ago to a rare opportunity to view both a male and female bittern in a relatively open setting at my homestead allowing me to capture some pictures and videos.  The birds came so close to the house that I had no chance to sneak outside undetected to record sound with the videos, unfortunately.  Still, the ability to view up close what is normally a secretive bird, and record the breeding plumage variations of the sexes was a treat. The American Bittern is a predatory, heron-like bird that’s known for, in addition to its distinctive call, perfect, camouflaged plumage that blends with tall marsh vegetation.  Similarly, its staunch, vertical profile and slow-motion stalking behavior are characteristic.  When alarmed or cautious, the birds will adopt a vertical posture elongating their neck and bill skyward.  With their striated feather pattern, they blend in perfectly with surrounding vegetation making it easy to paddle by and not detect them unless they flush.  When posed, they are even known to sway with the breeze to match the movement of surrounding vegetation.  Very cool. American Bitterns are diligent, purposeful stalkers, extending their legs in slow motion with outstretched toes.  Their diet includes fish, amphibians, reptiles, insects and even small mammals.  Like a heron, their sharp bill strikes quickly and with purpose.  They can also be found foraging in seasonally flooded basins and wet meadows which is why they were likely in my field.  Due to all the spring rains, the ground, which contains a fair amount of clay, is saturated.  The female was having no problem in finding prey, most of which appeared to be night crawlers. The videos are a bit grainy when viewed on a larger screen, but you can readily see some of the characteristics described above.  The male is in the background and his breeding plumage consisting of white wing coverts and black feathering along the neck are apparent.  A couple of the video clips show his exaggerated body motion when vocalizing.  Also note the slow-motion body and leg movements of the female while she hunts for prey.  If you’re not familiar, the vocalizations of the American Bittern can be heard at:  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Bittern/sounds [embed]https://youtu.be/eh5dFeM1EMo[/embed]