Featured Rare Bird of the CT River: American Bittern

American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) Fun Facts

Length: 24-34 inches long
Wingspread: to 50 in.
Favorite Food: Frogs, small eels, catfish, pickerel suckers, killifish, sticklebacks; garter snakes, water snakes, salamanders, crayfishes, meadow mice, water scorpions, giant water bugs, diving beetles, dragon flies, etc.
Nest: Female builds a platform of dead reeds, cattails, and grasses either directly on the ground in a marsh or wet meadow or a few inches above the water level.
Eggs: Two to six eggs, (but usually 3-5) laid between April to July; incubated by female for 24 days
Range: Summer resident throughout much of the southern Canadian Provinces and most of the lower 48 states of the USA. Winters from Mid-Atlantic Coastal States and southern Border states south, through Mexico and into Central America and Cuba.

American Bittern
American Bittern – Killingworth, CT (Photo by Anthony Zemba)

The American Bittern is a master of camouflage, often holding its striped neck in the same direction as the stalks of vegetation it has sought out for cover. This long legged wading bird is related to herons and egrets (Family Ardeidae).  Once considered a common summer resident in Connecticut (Merriam 1877), it was being reported by state ornithologists as “rare” by the early 1900’s (Sage and Bishop, 1913).  The first Connecticut Breeding Bird Atlas effort resulted in documenting “probable” evidence of nesting along the Connecticut River in Wethersfield, Cromwell, and Portland in the late 1980’s (Bevier, 1994).  In 1989, the Connecticut legislature passed Public Act 89-224 an act establishing a program for the protection of endangered and threatened species with the goal of conserving, protecting, restoring, and enhancing any endangered or threatened species and their essential habitat.  As part of the endangered and threatened species program, the CT Department of Environmental Protection (CTDEP) developed a List of Endangered, Threatened, and Special Concern Species in 1992.  At that time, the American Bittern was included on that list and was assigned an “endangered” status (CTDEP, 1992). Subsequent revisions to that list in 1993, 1995, 1998, 2004, 2010, and 2015 have seen species added to the list as their populations continued to decline, some species removed from the list as their populations recovered, and still others have had their status change from one rarity classification to another as they became either rarer, or less rare.  Unfortunately, the status of the American Bittern has remained unchanged since its inception to the CT ESA list in 1992, when it was added with the status of “Endangered”.

The CT Endangered Species Act defines “endangered species” as any native species “documented by biological research and inventory to be in danger of extirpation throughout all or a significant portion of its range within the state and to have no more than five occurrences in the state”.  Any species that appears on the federal Endangered Species Act list as “endangered” is automatically included in the state list as same.  The American Bittern is not included on the federal ESA.

This species is very secretive, in addition to being a master of camouflage. With those two characteristics and its preferred habitat of nesting deep in densely vegetated wetlands it is a hard species to detect.  As such, it poses a challenge when conducting population surveys. It is more often heard than seen during the breeding season when it is likely to bellow its territorial pumping call across the wetland it has occupied.  CT and Federal wetland protection laws have stemmed the loss of habitat that has likely contributed to the demise of this species’ population in CT.  It has further protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  The freshwater marshlands that occur along the lower Connecticut River Valley in Middlesex County still likely offer favorable habitat for the conservation of this species.  It will be interesting to see the results of the Second CT Bird Breeding Atlas, field surveys of which are currently in progress with field work scheduled to completed by 2021.  One can find more information on Connecticut’s rare species at the following link:

https://portal.ct.gov/DEEP/Endangered-Species/Endangered-Species-Listings/Endangered-Threatened–Special-Concern-Species

Information on the Connecticut Breeding Bird Atlas can be found here: http://www.ctbirdatlas.org/

Cited:

Bevier, Louis. 1994. Editor:  The Atlas of Breeding Birds of Connecticut. State Geological and Natural History Survey of Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.  Bulletin No. 113. 461pp.

CTDEP/CTDEEP. 1992, 1993, 1995, 1998, 2004, 2010, 2015. Connecticut’s Endangered, Threatened and Special Concern Species. State of Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, 2015:

http://www.ct.gov/dep/cwp/view.asp?a=2702&q=323488&depNav_GID=1628

Merriam, C. H. 1877. A Review of the Birds of Connecticut with Remarks on their Habits. Trans. Conn. Acad. (4), pp. 1-150.

Sage, J.H. and L. B. Bishop. 1913. The Birds of Connecticut. Bulletin No. 20 of the State Geological and Natural History Survey of Connecticut.

Terres, John K. (1980). The Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds, Alfred A. Knopf, NY. 1109 pp.

Contributed by Anthony Zemba and Amanda Kenyon

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