American Bittern – 2008

Botaurus lentiginosus – Aderyn Bwn America – Vagrant

On the morning of the 1st December, I was out with Janet Atkinson carrying out a winter TTV for the Atlas, when Robin phoned. Robin got to the point quickly, he had been out yesterday and picked up the remains of a bird, which after cleaning up, he thought was an American Bittern! As the bird was dead, I told Robin we would be with him as soon as we could, but we would finish the survey first.

I had little doubt that Robin would be wrong with his identification.  I had recently spent three weeks sharing a room with him in Madagascar and was aware of his keenness to collect thing and his desire to identify everything! From shells to seeds, from chameleons to lemurs, as well as birds.

St Davids Airfield, long disused (no more of the theory the bird came in by plane) has been left to return to marshy heath and is managed by the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.  Robin was looking for waterfowl in a particularly wet area to the north of the runways and came across a bedraggled, partly decomposed bird.  The the legs and long bill were clearly visible, suggesting a bittern-type bird.  Robin, a collector of “things” decided to take bits of the bird home – he wished now of course that he had taken the whole corpse if that had been possible.  But not suspecting a major rarity, “pieces” were taken.  The head including bill (badly decomposed), one leg, and one very black slimy wing.

Back at home, Robin started to clean up the pieces, the leg was easy, the head and bill were cleaned chemically to leave the skull/bill.  The skull/bill fitted a diagram of a bittern species in the literature.  But it was the wing that was the revelation! If it was a Eurasian Bittern, the flight feathers would be strongly barred.  This is what he expected but, on cleaning, it was obvious that they were black, with some feathers tipped with a rusty brown.  The greater coverts being this rusty colour and the primary coverts tipped this colour too.

The wing pattern fitting the illustrations of an American Bittern.

On viewing the bird’s parts I agreed that we had an American Bittern, measurements were taken, including head/bill, leg and the primary length, all of which supported the diagnostic wing pattern.  I posted a photo of the wing on PembsBirds, the county blog-site and amazingly we had 900 hits to this site in the next 36 hours.  How popular the bird would have been if seen alive!

The bird presumably arrived a few weeks earlier in the autumn, perhaps soon after the Blackpoll Warbler, which only one lucky person saw.  This is (BBRC acceptance required) the fourth record of American Bittern for Pembrokeshire.  1972, 1905 both shot, in 1946 one seen on Ramsey Island, which is off the end of the St Davids Peninsula where the airfield resides. 

Richard Dobbins

Pembrokeshire Bird Report 2008

More about the American Bittern in Pembrokeshire