I wrestled for some time with the decision to feature this week’s creature — the least bittern — due to the fact that I’ve never actually seen one in Pontotoc County. But I’ve seen one near here, in southern Johnston County. 

Now, I do know least bitterns nest in Oklahoma, but it is reportedly uncommon.

Audubon.org lists the common breeding range of the least bittern in the United States as being along — and up to 100 miles inland — the Gulf and Atlantic coasts from Mexico east and north to Virginia. However, the uncommon breeding range extends from south Texas north through the eastern two-thirds of Oklahoma, all the way into southern Canada and east to the Great Lakes region.

It seems many different agencies that publish bird range maps have slightly differing ranges for least bitterns.

But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that birds don’t observe borders and range maps. Also, these are very secretive birds and not easy to locate, even in their preferred environs.

That being said, even if least bitterns don’t nest in Pontotoc County, they almost certainly migrate through. And I can still tell you about them, as they are interesting little birds.

If you’ve seen or photographed one in the area, please let me know via email at rnw@usa.com. I would love to know about it.

The least bittern likes to hang out and hunt in tall vegetation in freshwater marshes and ponds. Tall vegetation, such as cattails and reeds. In fact, in the majority of instances that I’ve seen least bitterns, they were either in cattails or flying into them.

They are quite interesting to observe. These tiny herons — the smallest American herons — are very agile and often clamber through cattails by grasping the stems of the plants with their long toes. This also allows them to hunt where other herons may not be able to.

Because of this ability, least bitterns can hunt in vegetation above deep water. I’ve witnessed them holding steady above water and spearing down to grab up minnows and other small fish.

Description

As I mentioned previously, the least bittern is a very small heron — tiny, in fact. I remember the first time I saw one, I was very surprised at how small it was. Smaller than a crow, but larger than a robin. They are about 13 inches in length (with neck extended) and have an 18-inch wingspan.

And they weigh just a few ounces.

Least bitterns are brown in color overall.

Males have very dark green — almost black — caps and backs with two pale stripes (see photos). Females have a chestnut brown cap and back, with lighter stripes.

Both have chestnut and white vertical striping on the neck and chest, which aids in camouflage.

Like their larger cousin, the American bittern, least bitterns will freeze and point skyward when alarmed. They will sometimes sway with wind-blown vegetation to stay hidden. It is a very effective strategy.

Both males and females have yellow/orange bills.

Often, the least bittern’s neck appears stocky, like a football player’s neck. But don’t be fooled. Its neck can stretch about the length of its body, maybe longer.

I was shocked the first time I witnessed one’s neck fully extended. To me, it appeared alienlike.

Least bitterns resemble green herons, but only slightly. Green herons are much larger and have lighter green and darker brown coloring and orange legs, whereas the least bittern’s legs are yellow.

Food

Least bitterns eat mostly small fish and large insects. They also eat small frogs, snakes, tadpoles and crustaceans.

Habitat

Least bitterns prefer dense vegetation in marshes and wetlands.

Nesting

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, least bitterns nest in tall stands of vegetation. The female lays two to seven eggs — usually four or five.

Audubon.org reports that the male mostly builds the nest. Both male and female least bitterns incubate the eggs, which hatch after 17 to 20 days. Both parents will feed the young by regurgitation, and the young will fledge after about two weeks but will stay near the nest for another week or so.

The parents raise one or two broods per year.

Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for 40 years. Email him at rnw@usa.com.