Beak of the Week – Least Bittern

Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis)

Family: Ardeidae

The Least Bittern is the smallest North American heron and blends into its marshy habitat exceptionally well. Measuring only about 12-13 inches, these tiny herons have a long neck, with a dark brown to black crown and back blending to warm tan on the sides and tan and white stripes on the neck and underside. This coloring allows the Least Bittern to blend into the upright reeds and grasses where it prefers to forage. These small herons are light enough that they can easily move through the marsh by grasping the stems of standing vegetation. They will often perch between stems and strike down at the water to catch their prey, giving them access to water too deep for much larger herons.

When startled the Least Bittern puts its fantastic camouflage to good use by freezing in place with its bill facing upwards and its striped neck and belly facing toward the disturbance. They are even known to sway gently in the breeze, mimicking the wind-blown marsh grass.

The Least Bittern breeds in the eastern United States during the summer months and can be found in coastal areas of Central and South America in the winter. They prefer fresh and brackish wetlands with dense grassy vegetation and forage mainly on small fish and insects. Least Bittern populations are difficult to survey because of their inconspicuous nature, but the North American Breeding Bird Survey reported that their numbers appeared relatively stable between 1966 and 2015. This is good news, but they still face threats due to loss of wetland habitat and shifts in marsh vegetation, due to the expansion of invasive species.

Next time you are near a dense grassy marsh, if you are very patient – or very lucky – you just might catch a glimpse of an elusive Least Bittern balancing on the cattails.

Greg Lavaty
Greg Lavaty
 Visit our Bird Gallery to read about other Texas birds! 

2 thoughts on “Beak of the Week – Least Bittern

  1. I just happened to spot one of these little guys one day on a Milford Pa pond he looked like he was fishing at the edge of the pond. I tried to look up his identification I didn’t know he was a Least Bittern it was bugging me like crazy now I know what he was every time I pass that little pond I look for him thanks for posting this.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s