This week, we travel all the way to central New York, and back – gosh, I’m not really sure what year this was taken (so much for businesslike recordkeeping.) No, that’s not true, it was 2006, since it’s stamped on the slide mount. I was visiting family, and took a side trip out to one of my old haunts, Montezuma Wildlife Refuge at the northern tip of Cayuga Lake. And in the reeds directly alongside the viewing drive, an American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) was endeavoring not to be seen.
Now, you can see some of the traits that assist in this, even though it’s not working terribly well here. When suspicious of being spotted, bitterns will raise their heads straight up and count on the camouflage lines along their necks and throats to blend in with the reeds, even swaying slightly to look like they’re pushed by the wind. The really cool part, which my model here unfortunately did not demonstrate for the camera, is that their eyes are set in such a way that they can see all the way around themselves when posed like this: they can look right at you with both eyes while their throat is pointed at you, as it were. Or ‘straight up’ from the top of their head, too. I’ve seen it just once, the only other time I’ve spotted a bittern, and it’s very cool.
Bitterns, by the way, are medium-sized birds, a little larger than an average duck but with much longer necks, so (in this position) stretching up to 40cm tall or so. And, when they realize the camouflage isn’t working, they’re also quite adept at sneaking off. Despite my proximity and experience with spotting/following wildlife, when this one drew its head back down and slipped off among the reeds, it virtually vanished, able to duck under and among the plants without disturbing them. On multiple occasions, I would spot it for a moment as it appeared in a gap and, when it disappeared again, I would watch for evidence of it ahead on its path – only to suddenly find it much farther along than I believed, having completely escaped my vision and slipped off with appreciable speed. As this was going on, I had been shooting out the open window of the car and was backing up to try and keep pace without being too obtrusive, only occasionally correcting the car’s path by taking ahold of the steering wheel, or checking in my rearview mirror (I could get away with this because traffic was almost nonexistent, and anyone coming up behind me would be moving at just a few kilometers an hour themselves, as well as coming into sight hundreds of meters back.)
While I think I’ve gotten glimpses of them in flight on a couple of occasions, as yet I have only photographed bitterns twice – have to do something about that.