The hunters scan the tangle of sedges and cattails looking for clues to reveal the hunted. Something has to stand out - like a horizontal line in a sea of vertical patterns or a patch of misplaced color.
“I know that sandpiper-like bird is in here,” says Paul Ohlrogge. “Are you sure?” asks Lalay Ohlrogge, armed and ready with the camera.
“Yes I’m sure” says Paul, “I saw it run across the burned portion of our sedge meadow into this thick area.” They focus harder, and an image of a bird-like creature materializes from the maze of cattail stems. “What the heck is it, a baby heron?” Paul asks.
Lalay snaps a picture before their quarry disappears deeper into the unburned portion of the sedge meadow. With the help of a friend and Lalay’s photo, they learn their sandpiper-like/baby heron mystery bird is an American bittern.
The American bittern is a stocky, medium-sized, streaky-brown wading bird with a thick long neck and bill. It lives in wetlands such as marshes and sedge meadows where it feeds on insects, crustaceans, amphibians, fish, small mammals and reptiles. It migrates to Wisconsin in the spring and nests in areas with thick, emergent vegetation like cattails, bulrushes, reeds and sedges.
Paul shared their American bittern encounter as we walked through the Ohlrogges recently burned remnant sedge meadow, which the couple has been actively restoring. The bold yellow flowers of the marsh marigolds are each shouting out “Hey, look at me.” Newly emerged shoots of cattails, wool grass, bulrushes, woolly sedges, hairy-fruited sedges, tussock sedges and prairie cord grasses carpet the spongy moist ground in assorted shades of green.
Intermixed within this mosaic green carpet, thick stems and broad leaves of native forbs (flowers) such as cup plant, glade mallow, turtlehead, aster, marsh betony and mountain mint offer structural contrast to the vertical blades of the sedges, cattails, grasses and rushes. But it’s the massive leaves of the skunk cabbage, some two-feet long and one-foot wide that catch and hold my attention. Their huge form and stature makes them appear other worldly and out of place. Beyond the vast “green” area is a large tan/brown thick tangle area of cattail and sedge stems – the unburned portion of the sedge meadow. Bordering both of these areas is a fast-moving trout stream. I can envision Paul’s bittern story playing out on this stage. It’s ideal habitat.
The American bittern’s odd, resonating, booming breeding call is low-frequency, so it carries well through the thick vegetation. It’s easy to hear but difficult to see. As the Ohlrogges can attest, the American bittern is famous for its concealment pose with its neck fully stretched and bill pointed skyward. It’s been reported that the American bittern, while in the concealment pose, will even sway to match the movement of nearby cattails and sedges in windy conditions!
According to the Wisconsin DNR, the American bittern is a Special Concern bird species in Wisconsin. The species is threatened by the degradation and destruction of wetlands from invasive species, drainage, filling and conversion to agriculture. The North American Breeding Bird Survey estimates a decline in U.S. populations by about 43% between 1966 and 2015. The American bittern is designated as high concern by Waterbird Conservation of the Americas.
With the American bittern’s entire life cycle dependent on wetlands, its fate is ultimately linked to the declining numbers and degraded health of our wetlands.
Fortunately, landowners and ecological restoration practitioners like the Ohlrogges are working hard to make a positive difference. Management tools such as prescribed fire, properly timed and sized, is effective in reinvigorating native wetland herbaceous plants and setting back invasive woody plants. Invasive weed control, both by manual and herbicide methods, is effective against some of our worst invasive species that threaten wetland biodiversity. Citizen science, landowners and practitioners observing and studying the plant and animal communities they manage, will unlock more ecological mysteries and lead to better practitioner management methods.
What’s in your wetland? Hone your hunter’s eye, head out to your favorite wetland, and discover something new! You never know what you’ll find hiding there.