We had a record turnout for the monthly Birding on Broadmeade group walk this morning. 25 people showed up! And we were all treated to beautiful cool and clear weather, a few good winter birds, and one fantastic winter bird. We started at the Braes Valley parking lot and took over an hour to get to the Lake Creek Trail footbridge about a half mile away. (Birding is not the best form of exercise.) From the bridge, Chloe DaMommio spotted an American Bittern! These cryptic birds are very similar to herons and egrets. They breed in fresh water marshes among the tall reeds in the northern half of North America and winter in the southern parts of the southern states and throughout Mexico. Because their habitat is often inaccessible to people, very little is known about their life history. The thick brown vertical streaks they have on their neck and breast help them blend in with the tall reeds, and they often point their bills up in the air while still looking down for prey.
We got great looks and lots of photos of this bird because it was right below the bridge and didn't seem to mind us being there. Shortly before we left it actually walked right under the bridge while we stood over it. We watched it catch and swallow 6 to 8 crawfish, and I got this poor photo of it holding either a crawfish or some kind of aquatic insect larva in its open mouth.
American Bitterns move extremely slowly as they hunt, taking very deliberate steps as they watch the water for prey. Here's a shot I got of the bird showing its long toes as it takes a step.
I was thrilled to find this bird! Only a few per winter are reported in the Austin area, and it wasn't even on my radar to expect. It's the 213th species of bird I've seen in this neighborhood. Shortly after we found it I sent out a text message to TRAVISRBA, our local rare bird text message network. Byron Stone responded quickly and within half an hour he was there to see the bird as well. It was the 300th species of bird that he has observed in Williamson County.
Earlier we saw and heard some other good winter birds on the way to the bridge. A few of us got a brief look at a Cooper's Hawk as it flew over. We heard and eventually saw both a Spotted Towhee and a Hermit Thrush. I got this photo of the thrush, my first of the winter.
We saw good numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and a couple Orange-crowned Warblers. We briefly heard a Brown Thrasher. And on the bridge before the bittern was spotted, we could hear a Winter Wren singing. While we were watching the bittern, Song Sparrows, Lincoln's Sparrows, and a Swamp Sparrow were spotted.
This was one of those special mornings that can happen while birding. Not only did I get to see a rare bird that was a complete surprise, but it was on my local birding patch, and I got to share it with 24 other birders! That kind of thing doesn't happen very often. Here's our complete list of birds from the morning. And here are all the photos, including a short video of the bittern. What a morning!