When you return to the car, a little weary and sweaty after birding you may ask the same questions we often ask. What was the most memorable bird of the day? Or maybe, how many species did we see today, or were there any year-birds or life-birds, or did we finally connect a bird with its song? These are mind games that we birders commonly play.
I had planned a solo outing to Corkscrew Sanctuary in southwest Florida, but choking smoke from a controlled burn there chased me to the nearby Bird Rookery Swamp. The ditch along the gravel access road had been recently dredged and waders in large numbers were apparently feasting on the stirred up fish and crustaceans. I was already having a great day when the Hooded Merganser pair turned up in the same ditch.
I find these small diving ducks, sometimes called “Hoodies” or “Sawbills” difficult to photograph. Not only are they skittish, but the male’s jet black face and head sharply contrasts with the white hood. One is invariably either under or over-exposed. The larger female has a more subtle tawny beauty. The ducks are winter residents here but breed further north, nesting in tree cavities or houses, similar to Wood Ducks. Its hard to believe but the mother calls the hatchlings to the forest floor only 24 hours after exiting the egg, and leads them to water where they start swimming and feeding themselves. Literally “sink or swim”.
The teeming ditch also afforded many chances to catch some flying shots as the waders took off and landed. The Anhinga and Great Egret were my favorite keepers in this category.
Finally, parking the car and setting out along the path into the swamp things quieted down. The gravel path through the wetlands, gators, and Pond Cypresses must be similar to “Old Florida”. I came across a non-birding couple, obviously out for a power walk, who had stopped and noticed a strange bird just off the trail. Thinking it was likely just another Ibis or other common bird I stopped. An American Bittern; great sighting!
Its funny–I’ve never seen this bird on my own. It has always been sighted by others, usually non-birders, and then pointed out to me. Once it was a 7 year-old boy who was tugging on my pants as I was chasing warblers high above, trying to get me to notice the strange bird he had found below, just off the boardwalk. This may say something about my observation skills but the bird is stealthy, with vertical striations blending beautifully with the adjacent grasses. When alarmed the head and neck go straight up, further mimicking the rushes.
This short legged and thick necked wader also has multiple nicknames. “Bog bumper”, “Stake Driver”, “Bog Bull”, and “Thunder Pumper” are among the many, referring to the strange loud vocalization of this otherwise secretive bird. To me it sounds like a toilet plunger relieving a stoppage.
So what was the bird of the day? I has to be a dead heat between the beauty of the Merganser pair and the solitary Bittern. It’s my game–ties are allowed.