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Least Bittern

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

October 3, 2022

I spend the entire month of June on a boat watching the sunrise and sunset. I do this because I am leading wildlife photography tours, to capture images of Loons. I am so fortunate to be outside, surrounded by nature for such a sustained amount of time. I see and hear so many cool birds and animals. Most of them are fairly common critters that are easy to see and even easier to hear.

But if you stop and take the time to listen, and know what you are listening for, you can sometimes hear a rare or uncommon bird. So, every day on the boat I would listen, even if my group of photographers are talking, I still have an ear open to hear something unusual.

And of course, I hear it. A faint knocking sound. Low enough pitched to make it blend into the other natural noises, but distinct enough to stand out if you know what you’re listening for. A series of four of five knocks. Occasionally, if the participants are quiet and I point out the faint knocking sound, they all smile when they realize they heard it. Now that we are tuned in, we stay silent a little longer and listen again. When we hear it again, the smiles return in acknowledgement that they heard it. The knocking sound always comes from the deepest, thickest part of the cattail marshes which only adds to the mystery.

The knocking sound comes from a very secretive bird that in the springtime can be heard but rarely seen. It is the Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis). The Least Bittern is one of the smallest herons in the world, as you can deduce from its common name “least” and definitely the smallest heron in North America. Its species name “exilis” is Latin for “little or slender” which again refers to the diminutive size of the bird.

This bird stands only 11-12 inches tall, with much of that being its legs. It lives in thick stands of cattails and walks around near the base of the cattail plants using its very long toes to grab ahold of the stalks of cattails and keep it from walking in the water. They only weigh about 2.5 to 3.5 ounces (not pounds) so they walk around like they are floating on air.

So, for every time I am out on the boat with a group of photographers, we hear the bird. Occasionally we get very lucky, and we see one of the Least Bitterns fly. They will fly from one stand of cattails to another and if you are quick, you can catch a glimpse of the bird flying. I try to point it out each time it happens because it’s a bird that most people have never heard of, let alone see.

So, one day while we were enjoying the morning sunlight and capturing some images of the other birds, I had told the group about the elusive Least Bittern. Explained how we rarely see them and only occasionally do we see them fly. I also mention how these are not common birds and by their own behavior make them even harder to observe.

While I am doing all of this, just a few yards away, a female Yellow-headed Blackbird started squawking and fighting with something just inside the thick stand of cattails. As we turn to look at all the commotion, we see a Least Bittern flying out of the cattails with a very upset Yellow-headed Blackbird in hot pursuit.

The Least Bittern flew directly towards my boat and landed right out in the open on a floating mat of cattails just 6 or 8 feet away. We where all stunned and temporarily frozen. Knowing this is not something that happens every day, I grabbed my camera and just like one of those action movies, I dove “in slow motion” towards the front of the boat where I could get a good angle to capture some images. I could hear myself telling everyone “again in slow motion” to shoot, shoot, shoot!!!

When I landed on the deck of the boat and lined up my camera, I was able to capture about 6 images, which means since my camera takes 20 images per second, the bird only stood still for about .3 of a second before flying back into the thick stand of cattails.

You can imagine just how happy we where to have such an encounter. Everyone was checking the backs of their cameras to see if they got the shot, and everyone had huge smiles knowing they captured the elusive Least Bittern. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and capture images of the wildlife. He can be followed on Instagram.com, facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted  via his web page at naturesmart.com.


The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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