Thursday, April 5, 2012

Thunder Pumpers - The American Bittern

Stick your head in an aquarium and say “glunk-ga-glunk” repeatedly. This was the best description I could offer to a friend who was trying to help me identify the other worldly noise I was hearing coming from just outside my home in Londonderry, VT back in 2002. I had never heard such a sound and if pressed to jump to conclusions I was leaning between a pump going bad or an ET. With flashlight in hand, I circled the house and checked for mechanical malfunctions. I found nothing, but in the distance I could hear the “glunk-ga-glunk” again, far from the house, through a stand of Eastern Hemlock and down towards the edge of Lowell Lake. You’ve seen this movie right? I had to know what it was. In the remaining illumination of twilight, I crept closer to the noise and as I approached the marsh I noticed something standing in the water and waving back in forth like a drunkard on a sailing ship. I flashed the light on it and it flew. Based on the heron-like shape, I believed it was an American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus). Upon returning to the station I looked up their call and sure enough, my spooky mystery noise had been solved.

The name bittern comes from the Latin butire meaning “to cry”. The genus name Botaurus is Latin for “cry of the bull” and they are also known as Thunder Pumpers for their habit of swaying back and forth as they generate the incredible booming sound. The call can be heard for miles but in my case a quarter mile was enough to raise my curiosity.

I didn’t see another bittern until returning to the swamps of South Florida. Even here, the solitary marsh hunter is rarely spotted. As relatives of the herons, they have a similar body shape and a stout, sharp beak that is used for spearing frogs, fish and aquatic invertebrates. When approached they have a unique behavior of “hiding” by extending their neck and beak straight up and playing the part of tall thin aquatic plants. The brown and white streaked upper body parts also help camouflage the bittern. If that isn’t enough they’ll silently sway in the breeze with the vegetation - quite a contrast for a bird that generates such a racket. 

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