No. 25: Birds and Nests
by Frank Izaguirre
Species: Least Bittern, Ixobrychus exilis
Question: What’s your coolest bird nest–finding experience?
It’s all over. Migration. It came and went. Why does it always happen so fast? Why didn’t I go birding more during that precious window? How long until shorebirds start passing through again?
No, no, no. Not only is it true that migration may not even be over in your area (keep an eye open for those late summer migrants!), but summer has tons to offer birders: it’s a great time to search for interesting breeding birds, learn songs better since the birds are so vocal, and try to find nests of common breeders that may still hide their nests well even as they sing and swoop around you every day. The lovely and layered melody of the Wood Thrush is easy to hear in any wooded place in my area throughout the summer months, but good luck finding a nest!
But sometimes we do find them. And sometimes, especially when we’re logging lots of field hours, we find the marvelous nests of even the most famously cryptic species when we least expect to.
Among the ABA Area’s wading birds, the Least Bittern is arguably the trickiest to find. It’s small. It’s shy. And, like its larger cousin, it blends in ridiculously well to the reeds it so often hangs out in. I’ve only seen it a few times, mostly in a wetland park beloved by birders and known for being a great Least Bittern destination: Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach, Florida.
In addition to Least Bittern, Wakodahatchee can be excellent for locating other tricky ABA Area species like Sora, Nanday Parakeet, and Gray-headed Swamphen. But even if you don’t find any tough birds, what makes Wakodahatchee truly exceptional is that there will always be dozens upon dozens of highly visible birds, many of them literally right next to you. It is probably the best birding destination I have ever been to for up-close and intense encounters with birds: even for Florida, the boardwalk manages to bring visitors right next to so many charismatic wetland species.
The best time to visit is usually winter, when there are more species present, the weather is nicer, and the water levels may be lower. But a visit in spring and early summer will have its benefits: baby birds! So it was when Adi and I visited one humid summer day several years ago. Baby Anhingas! Baby Tricolored Herons! Baby Wood Stocks! Baby… what? No way.
It can’t be.
Are you serious?
I think it is.
It definitely is.
Baby. Least. Bitterns.
I’m being totally serious. We found a Least Bittern nest.
It wasn’t even that far from the boardwalk, but it was so hidden. I’m sure most folks—maybe even most birders—were walking right by it. There was no angle where you could even get a full look at the birds, just slivers of a glimpse of the two babes and an attendant parent. I spent so much time trying to get a decent photo of this rare sighting, pacing up and down the boardwalk to try to find some magic angle that pierced through the shield of reeds, but really there was just no way to get a full view of the complete scene. And that’s probably why most people don’t see Least Bittern babies.
I may never again find a Least Bittern nest or see a Least Bittern baby. But the challenge and delight of finding bird nests is something birders will always be able to enjoy, even if they’re feeling down about the end of spring migration. Finding a Least Bittern nest is probably my coolest bird nest–finding experience. What’s your coolest bird nest–finding experience?
Last spring I saw a Nuttall’s Woodpecker boring out a nesting cavity. Then yesterday I saw a Tree Swallow fly into that same exact hole! Neither of those species are rare or difficult to see nesting, but being able to witness the nest succession one year after the next was enough to put a smile on my face.
Oh, that’s a good one. I have to think about whether I’ve ever seen a cavity or other nesting site transfer from one species to another, but I don’t think so off the top of my head.
Maybe nest boxes don’t count, but our neighbors’ box in Cockeysville, MD, had House Wrens last year and Tree Swallows this year.
Perhaps not my coolest bird nest-finding swift experience ever, but it’s my most recent. From just yesterday, Wed., June 1, 2022. I was out looking for those late migrants you were talking about. It was a cold and rainy morning (with the snow level only about 1,500 ft. above where I was birding), and I was seeing stuff like Swainson’s Thrushes, Olive-sided Flycatchers, and Wilson’s Warblers–all late migrants for the site. Then I heard this wild commotion, and I saw a gray-black blob hit the water in the raging stream directly below the bridge I was standing on. The gray-black… Read more »
The best nesting experience for me was catching Baltimore Orioles weaving their nest together and then returning several weeks later to watch the juveniles fledge. Just amazing!