San Bernard and the Elusive Least Bittern
September 16, 2016
Southeast coastal Texas is home to both bitterns; the American Bittern winters here and can easily be found stalking crawfish at Brazos Bend State Park but the Least Bittern is much more shy. We made several trips last year before we got some photos of the elusive little fellow at Bryan Beach which you can read about here.
This year has been awesome for Least Bitterns, perhaps because it has been so wet. I see great photos on Facebook from all the major wildlife refuges in the area and we got a good tip about some at San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge.
We hadn't been over to San Bernard lately, so it was a nice change from the usual places. As you move inland from the coast, there are fresh water marshlands, open prairies and hardwoods along the river bottoms. The refuge is in the floodplain of the Brazos, San Bernard and Colorado Rivers.
There are some nice boardwalks along Bobcat Woods but they are dangerously slick during wet weather. And overhung with Golden Orb Spiders this time of the year.
Most of the action was on the Auto Tour. A lot of our refuges have Auto Tours; the roads are often on levees along ponds and wetlands. Of course it is permissible to get out of your car and take photographs or observe from the road but the habitat is too fragile to hike and.... much too dangerous to wade out in the water or marsh.
This youngster was near the boardwalk and might grow up to be as big as the one a guy found in his garage recently in Fulshear, Texas. He went in to get his lawnmower and almost stepped on a 9 foot alligator.
The first trip over we didn't find any Least Bitterns but got some great shots of Green Herons. Green Herons are fun to photograph since they slowly stalk their prey and often stand motionless for long periods of time.
You can tell this is a young bird; look at the vestige of baby feathers on the top of his head. I had my tripod set up at the side of the road and watched him climb around on the dying reeds. He lunged into the shallows once for something, but he turned his back to me while he devoured his meal.
We followed the directions we had along the Auto Tour Road to the "double-culverts across the small pond with creepy alligator that watched every move you made", but didn't find any Least Bitterns.
The next trip was much more successful.
Least Bitterns are really small, and sometimes misidentified as Green Herons. The Green Heron is stockier, darker and measures out at 16-18 inches, where the smaller Least Bittern has a more golden color and is 11-14 inches in length. A juvenile might be even smaller. Both birds can hunch up and appear very slight in size.
You know the bigger grackles in the Walmart parking lot? The shiny long-tailed noisy ones? Boat-tailed Grackles are 10-14 inches long and that is about the same size as a Least Bittern.
And they are pretty noisy for such a small bird. We had set up by the side of the road and there were several calling to each other. Since the Least Bittern is so small, he can perch suspended on the reeds and even lean down to catch small fish or floating prey.
I had a pretty good window for this bird. All of the refuges mow the vegetation along the sides of the road, but the cattails often grow right up to the mowed strip. They can obscure your view; sometimes you don't see a reed that blocks your shot until you get home.
He (or she, it is impossible to tell) got the dragonfly and turned around to eat it. Looks like a Blue Dasher, a common dragonfly that has to perch in the warm sun to raise its body temperature. And while motionless, the dragonfly is highly vulnerable to becoming lunch.
In the above photograph, a green reed bisects the bird. It isn't distracting, in fact it adds to the environmental aspects of the image because it is in focus. If the same reed was a foot in front of the bird it would be out of the depth of field and a blurry green in your shot and not acceptable.
The Least Bittern dropped his dragonfly, but soon recovered the prey. After lunch he moved over a bit and did a crackerjack fluff-up which I had enough shutter speed to catch. It is always such a trade off. We had lovely overcast skies so harsh shadows weren't a problem, but that requires a bit higher ISO. I was shooting between 800 and 1250. Using a tripod I could adjust my shutter speed to between 1000/sec and 1600/sec as the light fluctuated and be reasonably sure I could catch some quick action. As long as the birds were relatively still, a slow shutter speed would work but you might miss quick movements.
Have you been to San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge? You don't have to take photos, you know. There are several trails and observation areas that are easy to get to. And it is going to cool off some. In fact this week was almost pleasant.