We often think of predators as animals with sharp teeth and claws but I wonder if the owner of these yellow legs isn’t the creature that most haunts the nightmares of the fish and frogs and voles of Ridgefield. If you see these yellow kicks hiding in the shallows, best hope the bittern isn’t hungry.
On New Year’s Eve in 2009, snow still blanketed the ground but the more typical cold rain had returned, beading up on the head and neck and shoulders of an American bittern as it patrolled the edges of South Quigley Lake. I loved being at Ridgefield in the rain, sitting at one of my favorite spots on the auto tour with a bevy of towels strewn around the car to absorb the rain that would blow in. Your car acted as a blind so on days with poor weather and little traffic, as long as you sat quietly the animals would relax and often come quite close. This was one of two bitterns I was watching for a couple of hours that afternoon until the bewitching hour approached and I had to start the car to make it out before the gate closed.
Bitterns can look like a football with a head attached so it always amazed me when they’d stand and stretch their necks up, and up, and up. Useful for seeing over tall grasses and also as a defensive pose, I saw them do it multiple times when bald eagles soared high overhead, although the subterfuge worked best when the grasses were brown instead of green. I was never quite sure how they distinguished the distant eagles from other birds of prey but I did a quick check of the skies if a bittern I had been watching suddenly struck a thin vertical pose.
A juvenile red-tailed hawk sits in a meadow in heavy fog at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington. The telephoto lens is exaggerating the whiteout effect as it is picking up all the fog between my car and the distant hawk but it illustrates the point: for an animal that might normally hunt by soaring high above the meadow and looking for voles below, a thick fog changes the dynamic between predator and prey.
The fog didn’t have such an impact on an American bittern stalking the shoreline that winter morning as it looked and listened for small creatures both on the land and in the water. Sometimes it hunted by slowly walking up and down the shoreline, sometimes by standing still, but in either case the thick fog would not obscure the prey such a short distance away.
Downy feathers cling to an American bittern’s beak after a preening session on a rainy winter afternoon. This one was at South Quigley Lake at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, my second favorite place to watch for bitterns on the refuge (and the first if there aren’t tall grasses along the final channel beside Rest Lake, like during the winter this was taken).
I visited Ridgefield a handful of times over the Christmas break and was saddened to see that my favorite spot to watch bitterns, a little strip along Rest Lake, had been mowed close to the ground. There is plenty of cover in other areas near this strip so the bitterns still have ample places to hunt, they just won’t be visible from the road. So I was ecstatic on my last visit, when I had stopped to watch some bufflehead in an earlier section of Rest Lake, to notice this bittern hunting in the tall grasses. I only had a little window through the grasses to see it but it was a real delight to watch one of my favorite birds again.