Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Birding By Bus

Anyone who rides public transportation has come across their share of odd birds, the ones who only flit at the outer edges of socially acceptable behavior. Like the man who feels compelled to show everyone the dozen or so pictures of his cat, which he keeps stored on his cell phone. This one comes with a bit of relief to discover that it’s only a cat, since it is usually initiated by his plopping down in the seat next to you and loudly exclaiming, “Let me show you some pictures of my girly”. Or the guy who is obviously high on something and keeps up a running monologue with himself, one richly peppered with expletives and grunts. However, whenever possible I try to ignore these occasional odd birds and grab a window seat on the right hand side of the bus so that I can keep a vigilant eye on the passing ditches and tree snags for real birds.

Improbably enough, I’ve been rewarded for this a number of times with a particularly fine sighting. The other day as the bus rumbled home through the North Creek business park I was somewhat shocked to see an American bittern hanging out in one of the sparsely vegetated ditches. There have been hundreds of times I’ve scanned the edges of vegetation in North Creek Park hoping to see one of these shy fellows. Their camouflage plumage and slow movement make them hard to spot among the reeds and stems, and although many birding guides mention that they are often heard and seldom seen, I rarely hear them or see them.

I think part of the allure of spotting a bittern is their long list of pseudonyms. Sky-gazer, look-ups and stake bird are all names derived from the odd behavior of a startled bittern that will point its bill straight up in the air and contract its body into a thin sheath. Occasionally it will sway with the surrounding reed movement as though to say, “Nothing here but us cattail stems. Nope, nope, nothing to see here!” The loud gulping and thumping calls from a specialized esophagus have earned it the nicknames water-belcher, mire drum and thunder-pumper. Although I haven’t witnessed it, apparently the mating dance of the American bittern would put even the sourest judge from the So You Think You Can Dance competition into fits of laughter. With all of this, I can’t help but believe that the behavior of this bird is a bit odd and quirky, even for one of nature’s most singular recluses. So it makes me wonder, if an American bittern were to
board a bus…?

(photo credit to Dan Chernoff at

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