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Least Bittern
Ixobrychus exilis
least bittern
Least bittern, photographed at Green Cay Nature Center in Boynton Beach, Palm Beach County, in spring 2013.

The least bittern, Ixobrychus exilis, is the smallest member of the heron family found in North America, and among the smallest in the world. It's a common bird but it's well camouflaged and tends to stay out of sight and can be difficult to spot. Its numbers actually seem to be increasing in places like Green Cay and Wakodahatchee based on our incredibly casual (unscientific) observations.

And it's a year-round resident of South Florida, but again, according to our observations, most likely to be seen during the spring and early summer months when they're breeding. A portion of the least bittern population is migratory. They spend summers over much of the eastern United States, including northern Florida, and pockets of the West Coast. They winter in portions of Mexico and Central America. Year-round populations are also found in the Caribbean and South America. A map of their distribution resembles a map of the great waterways of the western hemisphere.

And that's no accident. Bitterns are marsh birds. Unlike most herons, they are not waders. Rather, they're the Wallendas of the wild, climbing out on reeds over water, where they'll wait for a tasty fish or bug to wander by. They're also capable of straddling two reeds low to the water.




least bittern
bittern hunting

Bitterns are similar in appearance to the green heron and share the same habitat. Bitterns, however, have buff and white vertical strips on the throat and chest and generally are a lighter brown than their cousins. Bitterns also tend to cock their heads at an angle.

Breeding season seems to be late spring and early summer, here in South Florida. Males do most of the nest-building, choosing a site near the ground amid dense vegetation. They'll bend some of reeds and sticks and other bits of vegetation to form a platform.

Females lay clutches of two to seven eggs that hatch in about two-and-a-half weeks. Both parents handle incubation duty; both parents also share the job of feeding their offspring.

Normally, the hatchlings will spend the first two weeks of their lives in the nest, but can leave it after only six days if their parents perceive a threat. Bitterns can have two broods during a season.

Photographs by David Sedore

Least bitterns normally nest alone but sometimes they can form loose colonies.

As we noted, least bitterns are among the smallest of all herons. They are usually 14 inches long, or less, with a wingspan that might reach 18 inches. By comparison, their close cousin, the green, can be as long as 18 inches with a wingspan of two feet.

The least bittern population is secure, generally speaking, but could be challenged in the future by loss of habitat, encroachment of invasive plants and pollution from storm run-off. Least bitterns are members of Ardeidae, the family that includes herons, egrets and bitterns. The least's other cousin, the American bittern, is much larger and is a winter-resident of Florida.

least bittren flying
least bittern least bittern least bittern
Links for Least Bittern Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology National Audubon Society National Geographic Society
Unless otherwise stated, all photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without their express permission.