Friday, August 1, 2008

Bittern better when shared.

American Bittern, Botaurus lentiginosus.

I was at Terra Nova, the north-western corner of Richmond’s main island, awaiting a bus-load of birdwatchers I was to lead on a walk. After scanning the cat-tail marsh beyond the dike and seeing the usual bird fare, I noticed movement directly below me, only a few meters away. Part of the marsh seemed to be shifting sideways, very slowly. It was an American Bittern, a stocky, short-necked member of the heron family, known for its ability to blend in almost perfectly with its marsh habitat. The bird was painstakingly picking its way along, looking for tiny fish in shallow puddles. I dug my camera from my backpack.

I had never seen a bittern so clearly. I’d had a few startling encounters when I accidentally flushed one from almost underfoot, but nothing to compare with this lengthy, unobstructed view. It was a thrill, but at the same time frustrating, for what’s the fun in seeing a rare bird while alone? My interpreter’s instincts made me want to drag people over. Where was that bus?

The American Bittern has an aura of mystery, due in part to its near-invisibility, but moreso because of its peculiar call. Males create a booming sound, likened to the pounding of a post. It goes “oonk-a-doonk!” with the “oonk” a strangled gulp. Hurry up bus! The bird was slowly but surely moving on.

As a place to birdwatch, Terra Nova rarely disappoints. It is an accidental bird park, bringing together birds and humans in large numbers. The birds are there because of the diverse habitat -- marsh, hedgerow, open field, and pond, and position -- smack in the middle of the Pacific Flyway, a major migratory route. Humans are there because of our growing suburban population, and because of the dike, which is a spectacular place to walk and cycle. Meant to protect the island, the dike also provides a lengthy, elevated pathway from which birds can be seen, and where one might bump into a person staring at a bittern or other bird you otherwise might have missed.

The first dike-walkers who paused were curious why I was enthusiastically snapping pictures of old, brown cat-tail stalks. Then they saw the bittern and watched it too. Others came by and soon we were a small crowd of strangers, watching the slow-moving bird. One woman said she had seen a bittern somewhere else along the dyke when another person pointed it out to her. It is important to have others bear witness, apparently.

There is a history of bird-sharing at Terra Nova. A little south of Westminster Highway, on the east side of the wide ditch, there is an ancient, tangled crab apple tree. If you stop and look at it, someone, not any particular person, might arrive next to you and start a conversation about the flocks of long-eared owls that for several winters in a row roosted there. The owls’ grey and brown plumage made them very hard to spot among the branches. The tree and its owls became famous as people took delight in showing the birds to others.

I took more than fifty pictures of the bittern, chronicling in unnecessary detail the ten minutes it took to walk fifteen feet. I wanted to have something, an image at least, to show the birders when they finally arrived, because the bittern was approaching a dense cat-tail thicket and would soon disappear. At almost the last moment, the bus pulled into the parking lot. I skipped the usual opening pleasantries and beckoned the group to come as quickly as possible. Just in time, they saw the bird. Terra Nova had provided a rare bird sighting, vastly improved by the sharing.


tully monster said...

If it helps, when I saw the bittern photo and started reading your story, my heart actually started to beat quite a bit faster. I've never had the chance to see an American bittern in the wild, myself, although I wonder if it's simply because I wasn't looking for it. But I know the feeling of being out at six in the morning on the bank of the Illinois, without my husband or a camera, and face to face with a great blue heron (white morph) and all I can think is how badly I want him to see it with me. Telling him about it afterwards is more than vaguely dissatisfying.

Hugh said...

Yes, Tully M, I know exactly how you felt.