Sunday, September 14, 2014

Least Bittern: Shoal Lakes IBA

Special thanks to Donna Martin for sharing her sightings of  Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis) in the Shoal Lakes Important Bird Area. I decided to try to photograph them this morning and had enormous success photographing a male and an immature bird (probably hatch year male: note for example the black feathers with fine white tips coming through on the mantle). I was delighted to manage a series of behavioral observations: I loved the way they sneak around like mice and their fishing technique, especially how one wing would open during the back lurch (after the initial forward trust) as a balancing mechanism. I also enjoyed how they would shake their fish after catching them (presumably to kill them before swallowing) and the way they shook their whole body sideways when ingesting larger prey items (presumably to help gravity along!). They were also remarkably dexterous at manipulating prey items with the very tip of the bill. Most amazing of all to watch though, was the incredible flexibility in the legs and feet that enabled them to walk through the reeds clinging to vertical stems with ease! Here is a series of 21 photos that illustrate some of the above points:

Here is the male with his jet black back, fishing on a rock...

In this photo, you can see the bitterns' famous trick of looking forward "under" the bill...

 And here are two more poses of the male fishing...

These next photos are of a different bird with darker markings than the male, although there are black feathers mixed in with the otherwise brown back, which lead me to believe this might be a juvenile male... These first photos show how good at fishing was, catching several fish of different sizes while I watched:

I was impressed by the bittern's ability to handle tiny fry with the very tip of the bill as seen here...

The observations I most enjoyed was watching this Least Bitterns creep through the reeds, especially the amazing legs and huge feet that seemed capable of bending to extreme angles to grip whatever necessary. Watch as the bittern appears through the reeds, bending their body around the narrow gaps between them...

The feet are angled outward to grasp vertical reeds

here are a few photos of the bittern's stride wit hthe amazing reach of those large feet:

In this next shot the bittern had turned 90 degrees - note how the back leg is perpendicular to the body (impressive and graceful!)

A few poses to finish:

A long awaited photo opportunity of this elusive and Threatened (COSEWIC) species!


  1. Fantastic series with great behavioral shots and information!! These are amazing!!

  2. Just delighted by these pictures and observations.

  3. Great, Chris. Did you even breathe when you were taking these?

  4. Just a fantastic piece Chris! Behavioural images are always my favourites and this is filled with them!


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