American Bittern

Botarus lentiginosus

By Hugh Jennings

  • Length           28 in 
  • Wingspan     42 in
  • Weight          14 oz (400 g)
  • AOU Band code    AMBI

The American Bittern (AMBI) is about 28” long with a wingspan of 42”. The genus name Botarus (boh-TAW-rus) is from the Latin botarus, a bittern, and the species name lentiginosus , freckled, referring to the speckled plumage. It is a large, chunky, brown bird with upperparts streaked with brown and buff, underparts streaked with brown and white. It has a white throat, pointed bill and yellow eyes. There is a black patch, or stripe, on each side of the neck. In flight they have a brown back with dark outer wings.

Bitterns are secretive, cryptically colored marsh birds that are unique among herons in being more easily heard than seen. They move slowly through dense marsh grass. When alarmed, a bittern will “freeze” with its neck upstretched and bill pointed skyward. Its pattern of vertical stripes provides camouflage against a background of marsh grasses.

It breeds in freshwater marshes, mainly large shallow wetlands with tall marsh vegetation, throughout most of central and northern U.S. and Canada. It winters in similar areas along both Pacific, Atlantic and Central America coastlines and also in brackish marshes. It is a solitary feeder that stands or walks very slowly, then strikes prey with a lightning stab. The diet is mostly fish, but also reptiles, amphibians, insects and small mammals. The platform nest is composed of cattails, sticks, grasses, placed in dense marsh vegetation a few inches above water.

There are 2-7 buffy olive-brown eggs. Females do most of the incubation and feeding the young. Incubation is 28-29 days then the young leave the nest in 14 days. The time of first flight is not known, possibly 7-8 weeks. Its distinctive spring song, oonk-a-lunk or pump-er-lunk, is most often heard at dusk in dense marsh reeds. The call is likened to an old-fashioned hand pump and has been referred to by many other local names, including slew pumper, thunder pumper and stake bird. The notes carry a half mile or more as the bird, after gulping air, forces it up from its distended belly.

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Green Heron

Botarus lentiginosus

By Andrew McCormick

  • Length           18-25 in 
  • Wingspan     26 in
  • Weight          7 oz
  • AOU Band code    GRHE

Green Herons belong to the genus Butorides, which refers to being “bittern-like” and derives from Butor, an Old English word for bittern.  They are the species virescens, from the Latin viresco, to become green (Holloway, 2003).   In field guides of the 1970s and 1980s these birds were grouped with the Striated Heron of Central and South America and called the Green-backed Heron (Butorides striates).  However they were separated out again in the 1990s.  The juvenile birds are heavily streaked on the face, neck and breast.  The adults are similar and have a dark greenish-black crown and the back and wings are an iridescent green mixed with grey-blue.  The back and sides of the adult’s neck is deep chestnut.  The bill is mixed yellow and black and the legs are yellow.  In breeding plumage the bill will become all black and the legs will flush bright orange.  Overall, it is a small, stocky heron. 

Primarily found in eastern North American, Green Herons are also found in the American southwest and along the Pacific coast.  The discovery of a Green Heron on a field trip is often met with excitement and surprise since they tend to be a bit secretive.  These birds are often solitary and can be found along the edges of ponds, marshes, sloughs, and slow moving streams especially if there are grasses, shrubs and trees around.  They like to be close to cover and can often be found crouched in branches along or overhanging the water.  Scanning with binoculars along the edges of waterways can help a birder pick one out of dark areas.  They feed primarily on small fish, frogs, tadpoles, some crustaceans, and sometimes insects.  They are skillful fishers and are one of our few birds that use tools to forage.  They will drop a leaf, feather or other small object onto the surface of the water as “bait” and then grab fish that come to investigate.

Green Herons migrate to the very south of the United States during October, but there can be vagrants into the early winter.  They return to their Northwest breeding area in May.  The male initiates nest building with twigs and once paired will bring material to the female.  Four to five pale blue-green eggs are incubated for about 20 days.  The first eggs get a head start, resulting in asynchronous hatching and chicks of different sizes (Sibley, 2001).  The parents provide food by regurgitating into the mouths of the young and often the smallest chick is outcompeted and does not survive.  Unlike other herons whose populations are suffering due to wetland drainage and urbanization, Green Herons have a stable population and may be expanding their range in our area.  They are colorful and unique and we are fortunate to have them as part of the Pacific Northwest avifauna. 

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Belted Kingfisher

Ceryle alcyon

By Hugh Jennings

  • Length          13 in
  • Wingspan 20 in
  • AOU Band code   BEKI

The Belted Kingfisher (BEKI) is 13” long with a wingspan of 20”. The genus name Ceryle (ah-SER-ih-lee) is from the Greek kerylos, a halcyon, or in Latin halcyon, a kingfisher. The species name acycon (AL-sih-on) is for Alcyone, or Halcyone, of Greek mythology, daughter of Aeolus, god of the winds, who, with her husband, Ceyx, was transformed into a kingfisher. It is the only kingfisher found north of Texas or Arizona.

Like other kingfishers it is very large-headed with a long, heavy bill, short tail and very short legs. The head, back and wings are blue-gray and it has a white collar. Both sexes have a slate blue breast band. The female has a rust belly band and flanks. Juvenile resembles adult but has rust spotting in breast band.

The BEKI is common along rivers and brooks, ponds and lakes, and estuaries. The bird is often first noticed by its wild rattling call while in flight. It is usually found perched on a high snag or hovering on rapidly beating wings, then plunging head first into the water to grab a fish. After seizing a fish, it rises and returns to its perch, where it beats the fish on a limb, then tosses it into the air and swallows it headfirst. It also eats amphibians, reptiles and insects. Bones, scales and other indigestible parts of prey are coughed up later as pellets. During courtship the male brings a fish and feeds it to the female.

The nest is in a steep or vertical dirt bank, usually with a high content of sand. Both sexes take part in digging a long horizontal tunnel with a nest chamber at the end. The tunnel is about 3-4” in diameter, unlined, usually 3-7 ft. long. It may take from 3 days to 3 weeks to dig depending on the type of soil. The excavation is done with the bill. The nest chamber at the end is about 6 by 10”. The 5-7 white eggs are laid in April-July. Incubation takes 22-26 days and the young leave the nest 22-26 days after hatching.

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Great Blue Heron

Ardea Herodias

By Hugh Jennings

  • Length           46 in 
  • Wingspan     72 in
  • AOU Band code    GBHE

The Great Blue Heron (GBHE) is about 46" long and has a wingspan of 72". The Puget Sound region has a specific sub-species, Ardea herodias fannini. It is our largest and most common heron, about the size of a Sandhill Crane.

It has grayish-blue body, white head with a black stripe over the eye. The Puget Sound sub-species has a slightly darker color and are non-migratory. Breeding adults have a straight, dagger-like yellow bill and ornate plumes on its head, neck, and back. Non-breeding adults lack plumes and the bill is yellower. Immature GBHEs have a solid black cap that gradually changes to white over two years. Their calls are a harsh guttural "frahnk" or a short "rok-rok" given during aggression.

They are found in almost all water areas--marshes, wetlands, rivers, tidal flats, mangroves. They stand or wade in shallow water and grab prey with their serrated bill. The GBHE primarily feeds on fish. In the spring they will feed on frogs and marine invertebrates. In the winter it will feed on land on small mammals.

The GBHE nests in colonies, or heronries, of 7-250 pairs, usually 7-60 pairs in our area. Small colonies are more subject to predation. Some birds at the tops of trees act as sentinels to warn of danger. Crows, hawks and eagles feed on the eggs while hawks and eagles feed on the young. It is estimated there are 2400 nesting pairs in the 1990s in the Puget Sound region.

The nest is a large platform of sticks lined with twigs or vegetation and is built in the highest parts of tall trees, commonly alders and cottonwoods. Old nests are reused. They are continually rebuilt and repaired during the nesting season. Four pale bluish green eggs are laid. These hatch in about 28 days. By the time the young fledge 55-60 days later there will usually be only two young left.

GBHEs are found all year in the west and south. Its breeding range extends to northern US and southern Canada. By April 1 they have probably finished laying eggs. It is even possible for some early nesters to have hatched young. There are a number of heronries in the Puget Sound area, including Kenmore P&R, Lake Sammamish State Park, Bellefields Nature Park, Peasley Canyon in Kent, and Black River heron colony in Renton.

For more information, see the April 1984 National Geographic magazine which has a lengthy article about Great Blue Herons. The pre-eminent authority on the Puget Sound sub-species is Robert W.Butler who has written a book entitled "The Great Blue Heron".

Photo by Tyler Hartje

Photo by Tyler Hartje