“We don’t believe they exist” I said to Dave Fix last September. We were scanning Arcata Marsh in northern California with binoculars, searching for American Bitterns. We had been hoping to see them for eight years, ever since we first visited the Everglades. They are as long as snow geese, but streaky-brown and secretive. “Keep poundin’ the reeds” advised Dave.
“We suspect there is no such bird as American Bittern,” I told Todd Newberry, as we looked over Elkhorn Slough near Monterey. Todd nodded thoughtfully. “Ask local birders as you travel,” he said, “it will be a good way to break the ice.” One helpful birder from southern Florida, Ken Burgener, made a video of our stay with him. He taunted us by peppering it with subliminal glimpses of bitterns.
All fall and winter we asked local birders for advice and pounded the local reeds. Most people told us that they had seen one just last week, standing right out in the open. We visited great bittern habitat: Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Mad Island, Corkscrew Swamp. Our luck did not change. “I think this bittern thing is a gigantic hoax,” I told Malkolm and Ken.
Late in February we returned to the Everglades. One morning, Malkolm left camp at first light. Ken and I finished our coffee and then followed. Malkolm waved his arms in semaphore fashion as soon he saw us. His eyes told the story. He had seen his American Bittern, but it was a bittern-sweet moment for Ken and me. We were happy that Malkolm had seen the bittern, but American Coffee had come between us and our bird.
Viera Wetland is an engineered marsh, used for the last stage of wastewater treatment. It is a pretty place, and not smelly. Jim Meyer and Eileen Riccio saw 2 bitterns here, two weeks before we arrived. They kindly joined us. I looked out over an expanse of reeds, and thought that there was no need for a bittern ever to show itself. Just then, a large streaky brown bird erupted from the vegetation, and flew quickly to its destination. Just as it landed, I saw its profile, so familiar from the bird books. Immediately, it melted back into the greenery.
“Did you see that?” we all asked each other. I am not sure whose grin was widest.
Now that we knew where it was, we caught glimpses of that bittern from time to time. It moved excruciatingly slowly. The photo at top gives you an idea why these birds are so darned difficult to locate (hint: it is in top right quadrant).
American Bitterns exist! Triumph at last!