The East River is NYC’s premier waterway and as founder of the LIC Community Boathouse and HarborLAB, I’ve made it my paddling home. At sunset, ferry boats filled with skyline gawkers will nearly flip to the west, and East River bridges set the scene for countless films. But for a kayaker, it’s the wilderness refuges of its islands and inlets that make this tidal strait endlessly fascinating.
Returning to Randalls Island from Governors Island in the Sunday morning calm after City of Water Day, Caroline Walker and I paddled through the outskirts of Hell Gate toward Mill Rock. I was admiring Great Black-backed Gulls at rest and Double-crested Cormorants perched on the island’s rip rap skirt while drying their wings when I spied something a bit different — a bird with the shape of a heron but markings similar to an American Woodcock. Caroline described it as “brindled,” which is pretty apt.
As we drifted past, a handful of cormorants and gulls took off while most ignored us. The misfit bird, however, walked quickly and deliberately into the brush that grew down from a turf mound to the rip rap line. It seemed to almost instantly disappear among the twigs and leaves. I didn’t have a camera.
After some research yesterday, I realized how lucky Caroline and I were! We had spotted an American Bittern. This species has fantastic camouflage for its reedy habitat, and so is rarely seen. Sadly, its population is declining rapidly with diminishing wetlands (though I’m comforted that its conservation status remains “least concern“). Good places to seek them are Pelham Bay Park (join Wild Metro for a volunteer day) and Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. But they can pop up well away from salty shores. Prospect Park Lake, in the heart of Brooklyn, may have drawn this other one.
For those not lucky enough to glimpse this stealthy heron, there’s still a chance to hear its odd call, the second part of which sounds to me like someone repeatedly unstopping a PVC pipe. Strange that a creature would evolve to be invisible only to concurrently acquire a voice that earns it nicknames like “Stake Driver, Thunder Pump and Mire Drum.”
The American Bittern I observed was silent, so I have something to look (or rather, listen) forward to!