Northland Nature: American bitterns usher in the early morning
The early morning is chilly and still dark at this hour. Each day the sunrise gets earlier; the rays now begin to reach us at about 5:40 a.m. But I want to get out and walk before light, in the semi-darkness of the pre-dawn. At this time the wind...
The early morning is chilly and still dark at this hour. Each day the sunrise gets earlier; the rays now begin to reach us at about 5:40 a.m.
But I want to get out and walk before light, in the semi-darkness of the pre-dawn.
At this time the winds are calm, the traffic is limited and I can take a walk down the road and listen to all the happenings as this spring day begins.
My route takes me by a lake's edge, a swamp, a pond, a forest and a field. Each site contributes to the a.m. avian arrivals -- and each day there is news.
A loon call greets me as I step from the house. Somewhere back in the woods, the local barred owl asks, "Who cooks for you?"
By the time I'm on the road, I hear the drumroll of a ruffed grouse as the male sounds from his log, hoping to get the attention of a passing female. A snipe is courting in his own way overhead; its wings give a winnowing sound with air in the feathers.
So it is at the field where the woodcock uses this waning darkness for another display. The "peent" call given as he dances becomes a twittering from his wings during the subsequent flight.
The first birds to actually sing along my route are a couple of sparrows. A song sparrow gives a long, changing melody while its cousin, the swamp sparrow, produces a monotone phrase.
Red-winged blackbirds also "konk-a-lee" from the wetland. An early robin loudly alights in a yard. The hermit thrush, a newly returned migrant, graces this early hour with its flute-like song.
One morning I even heard the long, drawn-out song from the diminutive winter wren and a cardinal cheering up the dawn.
But the greatest sound that I've been hearing lately is one of the strangest: From the alder and willow swamps comes the unusual lumber-pumping noise of the American bittern.
Very hard to put into words, this call has been phrased as "pump-er-lunking."
Such a unique sound is not likely to be confused with another and, though the bird that makes this noise is usually not seen, it is definitely noted.
Related to herons, bitterns are wading birds and are at home in the wetlands. Here they stalk meals of frogs, fish -- whatever is available. The birds stand about 2 feet tall on strong legs and have a long neck and beak. Their bodies are brown with many stripes, allowing them to blend in with the surroundings.
Often, when scared, the bittern will stand still with its head pointed up. It will usually go undetected in this pose.
Camouflaged and living in the swamps means we don't frequently see the American bittern (there is also a smaller one occasionally in the Northland too called the "least bittern").
But they play a vital role in this pre-dawn chorus that I listen to each May morning.
Along with the rising sun, temperatures will warm and, in the breeze, these sounds will be harder to hear.
Thanks to early rising, I am able to partake in this early concert.
Retired Marshall School teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books that are available now locally. Contact him c/o email@example.com .