The Bittern Who Came to Call

Living closely on this abandoned farm, we have had many surprising experiences with wildlife. Because encountering people is less common for creatures here than it was in our former home near Westport, we have enjoyed many uncommonly intimate glimpses into the life surrounding us.

Friday evening we had an unexpected gift. Glancing out our front window, we were startled to find ourselves within touching-distance of an American bittern, who gave the appearance of having come to call. For ten breathless minutes, I stood far closer to this strange, wary member of the heron family than I could ever have expected to be. Other springs here I heard its resounding “gunk-a-gunk” call from deep in the marshy bays of our lake. To me this bird sounded like the spirit of the marshland calling out. Our first spring at Singing Meadow, I was pleased to discover through binoculars that what appeared to be a vertical stump in our own wetland was actually one of these furtive birds, frogging. Then, last year we did not hear the deep booming at all, and feared that the bittern had disappeared from our area as they had from Foley Mountain, many springs ago.

My husband Barry is convinced that the bird was charmed by his big yellow school bus. Possibly he caught the reflection of “another bird” in the bus’ big headlights. For whatever reason, we were treated to an exceptional display. At first, perhaps because he detected our slightest movement through the closed window, he stood frozen in his classic upright stance, with his long, pointed yellowish bill pointing skyward. We could see the sky clearly through the nostrils on his beak, appreciate his elegantly striped long throat, including the long dark streak stretching to his small head. His throat feathers ruffled, swelling, as if he thought of calling. Perhaps this was a young male, new to his performance! After some thought, a shape-shifter, he lowered his head and extended it forward from his pear-shaped body, changing to something like the flight silhouette of a wild goose. After still more consideration, the nearly three foot high bird began to walk, with slowest, thoughtful, foot-flexing steps around the bus, and down into our water meadow. It seemed to me, watching, that the bittern was as profoundly drawn to the water as a turtle might have been. Slipping into the lengthening grass he disappeared, leaving me with the impression that anything might happen, at any time.

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