May 20

A Breathtaking Baritone

Stillwater Wildlife Area near Carnation, Washington

Author Note: This trip was done in 2017. As of late April 2020, Washington is in a “Stay at Home” mode as we try to control the coronavirus and the resulting COVID-19 disease. In early May, the state will open some protected areas for recreation while we continue to practice social distancing. If the Stillwater Wildlife Area opens, I hope to make it out early one morning to search for the “pump-er-lunk” bird. An earlier version of this essay appeared in WOSNews 173 in 2-18. I thank Dan Steiffert for letting me use some of his amazing photographs. https://www.flickr.com/photos/danstreiffert/

The trees were just beginning to show a little shape as I inched my way along the dike at Stillwater Wildlife Area. It was 5:00 AM on a Sunday morning in early May, and sunrise would not come for another hour, even longer before the sun hit this area at the western base of the Cascades. My flashlight was off so as to not disturb any wildlife. The songs of American Robins filled the air. Their “cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up” melody proclaimed spring had arrived, and they were ready for another day, even though it looked like night. 

American Bittern – Photo by Dan Streiffert

A different sound made me stop, a gulping like someone was swallowing large mouthfuls of air. It came from the marsh across the small pond to my south. Five gulps were quickly followed by an eerie call: “pump-er-lunk,” then another “pump-er-lunk” and finally, a “dunk-a-doo.” A male American Bittern was trying to woo a female. 

I’d come to record this exact sound, so I settled onto the ground to put my stereo microphone rig on a tripod and see if I could hold still for the next hour. I slid off the gravel-topped dike to station my mic with its back to the bank, partially blocking sounds from behind me. The water was ten feet below, and a few bushes and cottonwoods lined the pond’s edge. Open water extended fifty yards to a thick marsh. The bittern was probably sitting at the water’s edge, hoping a female would like his display. 

Sonogram of the morning chorus at Stillwater Wildlife Area near Carnation Washington. The American Bittern has a deeper call than most birds. They hide in the marsh where this deep call will travel farther through the thick vegetation.

A second male began gulping; he was roughly a hundred yards east of my seat. The closer one instantly responded with his answer. Last week, I was here with a group of birders. The sun had risen as we searched along this old railroad bed, now a hiking trail. One person discovered a male bittern, probably this same one, lurking in the reeds and focused her spotting scope on him. We watched the male contort its neck as it lunged forward to gulp in air, expanding its esophagus like a balloon, and then used that air to make this resonant “pump-er-lunk” sound. 

In five decades of birding, I had never heard their call until last week. They don’t breed in Florida where I lived for more than two decades and were not common breeders near my Maryland home either. The sound last week took me by surprise; I watched the male for a long time while the birding party walked farther down the dike. Every few minutes, the bittern would begin again to blow up his esophagus and bellow out this resonating sound. This behavior and sound were so astonishing that I felt the need to return to see if I could record this spectacular call.

Their courtship boomings have a ventriloquistic nature, and rural people have given them some exciting names; “stake-driver,” “thunder-pumper.”  These are low-frequency sounds that will travel much farther through thick vegetation than the high pitch songs of most birds. Ornithologists think that these calls function both to attract females and tell rival males that this marsh was taken.

American Bittern (adult) Photo by Dan Streiffert

American Bitterns are members of the heron family. Their streaky brown and buff plumage allows them to disappear into the reeds, blending perfectly with the vertical shoots. They often freeze in a pose with their bills pointed skyward, neck stretched, so the streaks in their plumage will run parallel with the reeds. If they see people, they usually sulk back into the marsh.

But on that day, I was alone along this dike; no other person was out this early. I was hunched low; I had headset over my ears; my stereo mic pointed right toward the marsh where the bird just called. My eyes were closed so I could concentrate on absorbing the morning chorus of birds. It was still 45 minutes until sunrise. In addition to the robins, the Red-winged Blackbirds had started their “conk-la-ree” song, and I could imagine them drooping their wings while leaning forward and puffing out their bright red shoulder patches as they bellowed. They reminded me of my high school years when the football jocks would strut down the aisle, not moving aside for anyone, puffing out their shoulders when passing a pretty girl. The six-phrase melody of a Song Sparrow came from right above me. He was probably sitting at the end of a branch, looking across the marsh, and raising his head, puffing out his chest when he sang his beautiful song. Individual male song sparrows have about nine different melodies, and they mix them up in their morning repertoire. He hopes this diversity will impress a mate. 

Juvenile American Bittern (left) being fed by Adult (right) Photo by Dan Streiffert

These birds would be an excellent background to the bittern, creating a musical filler between this heron’s calls in my recording. He’s my quest today. To think a bird could be such a breathtaking baritone. Each time the sound came across the marsh, I was amazed by how these notes were made and wanted to show others this unique love song. Another bittern called to my left, and a third at the limit of my hearing on the right. A long pause happened between their trumpets and then once one started to gulp in air, the others followed. I tried not to move or say anything in spite of my excitement. My recorder picked up every nuance of the morning.

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4 Responses to “A Breathtaking Baritone”

  1. Michelle says:

    Loved this! Read it on email and was so frustrated not to be able to hear the “pump-er-lunk” I came to the comments to ask why the recording wasn’t included – and here it is on the blog! Also loved the metaphor of the red-winged blackbirds and high school football players strutting around – could vividly imagine it, and didn’t even have to be in Carnation at 5AM to experience it. Thanks for this beautiful piece, Tom. Really enjoyed it.

  2. Thanks, Michelle. Those redwings do think they are something else.

  3. Christian Kessler says:

    I got to know bitterns (both species) living in Virginia. this is a great story, & I too love the RWBB comparison — people are animals too, in many more ways than we recognize …

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