Foam Lake Birding No. 88

No. 88
On a cold, damp and dreary day on May 26, I had the pleasure of guiding a group of birders from the Yellowhead Flyway Birding Trail Association (YFBTA), centred out of Saltcoats, to some birding hotspots around Foam Lake. The main thrust was to go birding at the Foam Lake Marsh, however, because of the very wet spring and the reconstruction of highway 310, roads to the marsh were impassable. This was unfortunate as the marsh is an internationally acclaimed site renown as a staging area for migrating waterfowl. Instead, we went to various local places and still had a very successful outing.
Our highlight occurred at what locals call the Fedak Slough located along the Yellowhead Highway just across from the Margo grid. This is one of my favourite birding hotspots and many of my pictures of water and marsh birds have been taken there.
The said highlight was the sighting of an American Bittern. Usually one sees a Bittern in a marsh, but this one was in a grassy area covered with Golden Peas (Buffalo Beans to us old timers) along side a road. It stood in its classic pose with neck outstretched and bill pointed skyward in order to camouflage itself. This pose works well in a reedy marsh but not so much in a grassy flat. To top it off, it was very cooperative and let us approach it up close making it possible to take many good pictures, one of which is included in this article.
The Bittern is a long legged chicken sized bird wading bird that is a member of the heron family. The only two other herons one could reasonably expect to see around here are the same sized Black Crowned Night Heron and the much larger Great Blue Heron. Both are quite common in any given year. The male and female Bittern, like all herons, are the same.
Prior to the 1970s the Bittern was very common when suddenly its population started to decline dramatically across North America. Every evening and night all summer long one could hear the strange hollow pumping sounds of "oonk a choonk" repeated up to seven times followed by a brief break only to be repeated again. This vocalization gave rise to several nicknames such as Thunder Pump and Slough Pump. The very wet 1950s (much like now - at least where I grew up) were paradise years for water birds including Bitterns. Who knows? Maybe with the present wet weather their numbers will rebound.
At the same time as the Bittern populations started to decline the frog and toad populations suddenly crashed world wide. It appears there is some sort of fungal disease that is killing amphibians indiscriminately. Are the two events connected? After all, the Bittern's main food source is frogs. Incidentally, I just saw my first frog in our yard since I don't know when. When I was growing up on the farm the chorus of frogs and toads at night was almost deafening, and our yard was literally hopping with them. I have seen the odd frog here and there, but I have not seen a toad in years. Hopefully the two, along with the bittern will recover.
I have not heard a Bittern's "pumping " since the 1960s. Too bad. Maybe, just maybe, I might hear it again someday soon.