Least Bittern Chicks – America’s Smallest Heron

Least Bittern Chick in late day light

These cute little downy Least Bittern chicks represent the smallest heron in the Americas and one of the smallest on the planet. They are in the same family, Ardeidae, as their larger relatives on the taxonomic family tree such as the Great Blue Heron but with shorter legs and neck relative to size.  The genus and specie name is: Ixobrychus exilis. Although, as another example of the ever morphing taxonomy of the herons,  in J.J. Audubon’s time the scientific name was Ardea exilis.

Given the fact that the little chicks pictured here are the first I have ever seen, I would agree with the characterization of this tiny species as a tad elusive and even furtive as described by some.  The chicks are covered in down with rusty brown on the back, cream with streaks of light brown on the throat, and with whitish under-parts, coloring much like the adults. The bill and eyes are yellow. They  blend superbly with the reeds and marsh plants where they make their home.

Nests are built on a platform of dense aquatic, marsh vegetation which is where I found these little guys. Although, I do confess that a fellow bird enthusiast visiting at the same time, was kind enough in passing to share the information that they were there. They resemble a bit, in shape, the Green Heron and so if not alerted I may have assumed that is what they were at first. You don’t always have perspective when species are not side by side and the subject is chicks.

The female lays 4 or 5 pale blue or green eggs generally and like their larger brethren both parents share duties feeding their young by regurgitation.  I did see three chicks wandering about the nest and among the reeds. A diet of fish, frogs, crustaceans and insects are procured via sharp, quick jabs with their bill. This bird will straddle reeds and is able to perch in such a way that it can feed from the surface of water too deep for the wading methods of many other herons.

It was visually pleasing to see these little fellows in the late day sun looking such a warm brown with soft fuzz camouflaged against the dried, yellow brown aquatic plants but with some lively green and contrasting pickerel weed too.

Least Bittern Chick wanders the wetland in the late afternoon

Least Bittern Chick wanders tangle of aquatic plants

While a tiny representative of the lovely herons which grace our wetlands, the Least Bittern is certainly not the least of our concerns. This shy bird relies on an ever dwindling marsh habitat. Audubon noted that this species was not  terribly abundant in the country where it occurred with the exception of the mouth of the Mississippi and the southern Floridas, especially the Everglades.


~ by Judy on June 1, 2013.

14 Responses to “Least Bittern Chicks – America’s Smallest Heron”

  1. Oh my! They are entirely adorable. They even look a little shaky in the photos like they are not sure about walking. Beautiful shots, Judy! Your composition, colors and crisp focus are a joy. Thanks for posting about these tiny birds!

    • Oh thanks ever so much for the lovely comment…keeps me inspired for certain!! The downy fuzz on baby birds is so cute…even we humans respond to that!!

  2. Love these cute little beauties!

  3. They are beautifully camouflaged, aren’t they? And so tiny! I suppose that’s exactly why they’re the “least” bittern, and not the “average” or “humongous” bittern!

    I’ve not heard of pickerel weed. Is that the purple and green growth that’s horizontal, or perhaps the broadleaf plant?

    • At least that is my understanding on the meaning of ‘least’!! 🙂
      Pickerel weed is that broad flat leaved plant you see right next to the bird. The flowers are on slender upright shoots and have a spire of purple flowers at the tip. Purple Gallinules just love to eat those flowers. There is another larger aquatic plant with similar but huge leaves called Fire Flag also in the wetland. I love those too and their flowers are single or in a group and drape nicely from a very thin stem. They tremble in the breeze so I have few good pictures of those flowers. I’ll try and show one sometime soon as the aquatic plants are such a lovely part of the aquatic community beyond being home or snack to the birds.

  4. Ah, you got your babies up!! They are just wonderful… So beautiful!!! Look at that marvelous camouflage. Here’s to growing their world, and protecting their precious habitat…

    • Yeah its no wonder that old folks like me with diminishing eyesight can miss these cuties blending in with their enivronment so well!! 🙂

  5. these images are so very precious! visiting your blog is always a feast for the eyes and soul! z

  6. In the UK the Bittern is one of the rarest species, yet beginning to thrive again in the Broads area of Norfolk – luckily, that’s where I live. I once had the unbelievable experience of a family of bittern chicks playing hide & seek around my feet. The reserve warden didn’t believe me. They’re timid, he said; it takes great patience to see them. I was just out walking! Your photos are amazing.

    • I would probably have missed these if a fellow birder had not alerted me to their presence. They are shy and so perfectly colored for habitat blending. When I visited next only a week later I think, there was no sign of them on their aquatic pallet!! So it was such a pleasure to have the chance for some first photos of the little fellows!!

      Your experience sounds like serendipity to me…you never know what is in store during the most humble of outings!!

      • An RSPB nature reserve, quietly abuzz with twitchers sporting heavyweight telescopes, glaring at me for my burn-sand shirt. And lo! The mother was there too, but shyly lurking in the reeds. Had I not seen the chicks I would not have seen her.

      • Ummm, you sent me on an online search with the term ‘twitchers’ So, this I found on twitcher.com. “Twitching is a British term, meaning “the observation of a previously located rare bird”. In North America, this is often called chasing.

        The goal of twitching is often to accumulate species on one’s lists. Some birders engage in competition with one another to accumulate the longest species list. The act of the pursuit itself is referred to as a “twitch” or a “chase”. A rare bird that stays put long enough for people to see it is called “twitchable” or “chaseable”. ”

        New information for me so a good look up! I am not in the category of one adding to my species list as a bird enthusiast, but rather am fascinated by certain species as the lovely wading birds for their inherent majesty and artistic beauty. Though the world is full of interesting and exotic birds I would love to see in person.

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