American Bittern, looking much like the marshland he inhabits, photographed along Ocracoke’s NC 12. Photo: P. Vankevich

By Peter Vankevich

The American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) is one of the more interesting avian fall/winter visitors to Ocracoke.

A member of the heron family, it is short-legged with yellow eyes and a long neck and bill. The overall colors of brown, beige and yellow with much streaking permits it to blend in with its habitat of marshland grasses.

On Ocracoke, American Bitterns may be confused with immature Black-crowned Night Herons that share the same habitat. An easy way to tell them apart in flight is to look for the much darker brown wingtips on the bittern.

Solitary in nature, they often stand still for long periods of time and when foraging, primarily in early morning and at dusk, they will walk slowly and suddenly strike their prey with their lethal bills.

The diet of this bittern consists of small fish, insects, amphibians and occasionally small mammals. It is also able to snatch large insects, such as dragonflies, in flight.

You may see this bird as I did along N.C. 12 as you approach town, especially after rain and there is standing water. Other areas you might encounter them include along the South Point road and in the mosquito canals in town.

When it detects that is has been seen by a potential predator, a bittern will freeze after pointing its bill straight up. While in the marshes, this is an effective way to become invisible as it blends in with its surroundings.

American Bittern appearing in a yard in Ocracoke village. Photo: P. Vankevich

They are also known to appear in locations not considered their natural habitat, such as Ocracoke village yards.

There are times, however, when it finds itself away from the grasses and assumes this posture, making itself easily seen.

At night during breeding season, bitterns make an eerie, loud call that one would not associate with a bird. Some people have described it as a water pump with a sound like oonk ka choom.

The breeding range is primarily the northern half of the United States and much of Canada. A few may nest in the North Carolina coastal freshwater marshes.

Although present in North Carolina this time of year, their primary wintering range in the East is the southern Gulf Coast region, the Florida Everglades, the Caribbean Islands and Mexico. The number of wintering bitterns on Ocracoke varies from year-to-year, though never numerous. Bad weather on the mainland may drive them to the Outer Banks.

As with several species of ducks, the American Bittern is disappearing or at least diminishing in many areas due, in large part, to a loss of wetlands.

Listen: The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a variety of American Bitterns recordings. To listen, click here.

When to see: Mid-fall into winter, arrivals and departures vary from year-to-year. 

Where: Look for them along N.C. 12 between the village and the NPS campground; along the sound side; along the South Point Road; in the village, especially the mosquito canals; sometimes in village yards.

On the Outer Banks, 13 species of herons, egrets and bittern have been observed, the rarest are the Least Bittern and Great White Heron.

Birds of the Outer Banks Checklist

Elliott Coues, a founding member of the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1883, had an imaginative anthropomorphic description of the American Bittern back in 1874:

No doubt he enjoys life after his own fashion, but his notions of happiness are peculiar. He prefers solitude, and leads the eccentric life of a recluse, “forgetting the world, and by the world forgot.” To see him at his ordinary occupation, one might fancy him shouldering some heavy responsibility, oppressed with a secret, or laboring in the solution of a problem of vital consequence. He stands motionless, with his head drawn in upon his shoulders, and half-closed eyes, in profound meditation, or steps about in a devious way, with an absent-minded air; for greater seclusion, he will even hide in a thick brush clump for hours together. Startled in his retreat whilst his thinking cap is on, he seems dazed, like one suddenly aroused from a deep sleep; but as soon as he collects his wits, remembering unpleasantly that the outside world exists, he shows common sense enough to beat a hasty retreat from a scene of altogether too much action for him.

Bitterns may appear to be tame when they are out of their natural habitat of high grasses.  Observe and enjoy them from a safe distance so that they do not become disturbed. 

American Bitterns can recline their necks, giving it a hunched appearance. Photo: P. Vankevich

Peter Vankevich is the co-founder and compiler of the Ocracoke and Portsmouth islands Christmas Bird Counts.

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  1. Hi Peter. One of my Facebook friends posted your article and stunning photos. Imagine my surprise when I saw your name in the by-line and photo credit! (I and my husband, Steve Soderberg, knew you at the Library of Congress and talked birds a little.) Apparently you have made a post-retirement career of photographing and writing about birds – how wonderful! I have seen the elusive bittern only once, years ago, at Huntley Meadows Park in Fairfax County. I can’t imagine how you captured these beautiful shots. They are certainly professional quality. Kudos on your second career! Steve says hi too.

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