Bitterns are Back!

The American Bittern winters along our Gulf Coast and I look forward to their return. One of the most reliable places to find Bitterns is Brazos Bend State Park. The early trips were futile, but finally.... Jan 19 was definitely a winner.

Five Bitterns! 

I know I have shown you this bird before in earlier adventures. The Bittern is a long legged secretive wader who stalks his prey in the reeds and marsh lands. They eat amphibians, fish, insects and reptiles. And crawfish. A lot of birders only catch glimpses of Bitterns, but often at Brazos Bend they will hunt in the open. The area to the north along the trail at 40-Acre Lake leading to the Observation Tower is prime Bittern territory.

First Bittern of the winter Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 320

First Bittern of the winter

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 320

The Bittern was out in the open and really close. I had to back off my zoom (this is at 300mm)  to get him fully in the frame. The problem with Bitterns, and Brazos Bend in general, is the amount of vegetation you have to shoot around. Plus, the backgrounds are usually messy. It is hard to get down at the wader's level because the trails are elevated over the marshes. You have to be careful setting up shop on the edge of the water; often there are grasses and branches in the way of you and your subject. And there are ants. And you can't wade into the water...

Because of the alligators

Young alligator sunning on a log. He was maybe 4 feet long. Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/80 sec. f/7.1 ISO 640

Young alligator sunning on a log. He was maybe 4 feet long.

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/80 sec. f/7.1 ISO 640

Ah.. this alligator shot was at my maximum zoom; he was on the other side of Pliant Slough and I was safely parked on the Spillway Trail with my tripod. Since I use a cropped sensor camera, my 400mm lens has a 600mm equivalent focal length in 35mm terms. I was totally safe. 

Most casual visitors to the park are looking for alligators and are thrilled to see them "in the wild", especially our out-of-area visitors. One man I talked to recently told me he only comes to see the alligators. I believe him because I saw him squat down directly in front of a young alligator on the side of the trail and ... talk baby talk to it. He was not two feet from the gator's snout and I was afraid he was going to pet it. 

Recommended distance from alligators by Texas Parks and Wildlife is 30 ft. 

American Bittern and crawfish at 4:03:41 pm Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 400

American Bittern and crawfish at 4:03:41 pm

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 400

But this Bittern worked his way closer to the trail, instead of away. The sun was horribly bright and it was difficult to maneuver around harsh shadows cast from the vegetation. This was a day our weathermen had forecast "early morning fog giving way to patchy clouds". Well, we had the fog, but it lifted late morning to clear, bright sunshine. 

But, while I fumed with the light, he got a huge crawfish, right in front of me. The actual catch happened down in the vegetation. 

The first order of business is to get rid of the claws. Then, he methodically crunched the crawfish, flattening it from from mid-body to head. Maybe they use their tongue to move it. 

4:04:01 pm crunching and flattening a crawfish Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 400

4:04:01 pm crunching and flattening a crawfish

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 400

He lifted his head and rearranged the prey a bit.  I was clicking away but in the back of my mind I kept hearing "DOF DOF you have plenty of light" but I was afraid to look away for a second. So, the above shot shows the crawfish perfectly in focus but I am losing the bird's head. 

4:04:21 pm Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 400

4:04:21 pm

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 400

He lowered his head and held the crawfish by its legs and turned it around. When he raised up, you can see the head is now on the left.  He continued crunching the hard shell. 

Young birds will play with sticks, sometimes throwing them up in the air and catching them. This manipulation of prey is a skill they have to perfect. 

4:04:27 pm starting to swallow the crawfish Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 400

4:04:27 pm starting to swallow the crawfish

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 400

OK, I know. It is kind of gross, but notice how cloudy the bird's right eye looks - birds have a nictitating membrane which covers the eye like a horizontal eyelid. It is protecting the bird's eye from the sharp legs and shell of the crawfish as he swallows his prey. 

Burp. 4:04:28 pm Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 400

Burp. 4:04:28 pm

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 400

Wasn't that exciting? I didn't get to see him catch the crawfish, that was hidden by the vegetation but ... from first shot to burp was less than two minutes. My camera will shoot 12 frames per second, but I was not using that feature, just burst shots - 68 of them as a matter of fact.

To get these kinds of shots, besides the telephoto lens and tripod, you need a camera with a large buffer and a fast SD card. You can't afford a lag as the camera writes the data to your card. 

Oh, and you need a lot of practice. 

South Texas Winter landscape - post-processing with Topaz Glow Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1250 sec. f/5.6 ISO 400

South Texas Winter landscape - post-processing with Topaz Glow

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1250 sec. f/5.6 ISO 400

It turned out to be a nice day made much better by the Bittern shots. We saw four more, but this was the best sequence. And it felt good to be out in the sun after so much rain and cold weather. 

Winter in South Texas means bare trees, cool weather requiring a jacket and a couple of nights near freezing. More than that, and we complain loudly. 

Related adventures: Back to Back Brazos Bend; Snipe Hunt; Alligators and Bitterns

Are you tired of Winter? Do you think snow is highly over rated? Are you looking forward to Spring? Let me know in the comments.