Secretive Marsh Birds

This American bittern at Market Lake WMA is a master of disguise and stealth. Even in plain sight you may not see it.

The onk-a-chonk call of the American bittern at Market Lake was close and unmistakable. In fact, it was almost like a Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry taunt, “Go ahead punk, try and find me.” And try I did, looking for a bird so well camouflaged that even its behavior of pointing its bill straight to the sky mimics reeds and cattails. Even when calling, this bird can be very hard to find indeed and I finally gave up. Again.

A visit to a marsh like Market Lake WMA or Camas NWR is sure to yield a wide variety of birds to even the casual observer. Species like white-faced ibis, avocets, mallard ducks, California gulls and songbirds like swallows, red-winged blackbirds, meadow larks and song sparrows, and raptors such as short-eared owls, harriers and red-tailed hawks are easy to see.

There are other birds though, the American bittern among them, that are difficult to find and are rarely seen despite sometimes being relatively common. They are shy and prefer to stay in the thick of cover. They can fly but usually use stealth and cautious wandering rather than flight.

These birds are called secretive marsh birds. They are not necessarily related to each other but all have secretive habits. Species include soras, Virginia rails, American and least bitterns, pied-billed grebes and Wilson snipe.

Fewer years ago than I like to admit, I had to ask, “what’s a sora?” because I had never seen or even heard of a sora. I actually saw my first one in Florida, not Idaho. Yet they are quite abundant in our area and throughout most of the United States. Secretive marsh birds are often more common than people realize but a comprehensive, efficient monitoring program that tells biologists the status of their populations can be difficult to achieve. Monitoring a population of birds you can’t see is tough but it is still necessary to help biologists manage and conserve them and the environments on which they depend.

If you want to see some of these marsh birds, start by listening to their songs and other vocalizations. Birding Apps like Audubon Birds and Cornell’s Merlin Bird ID (a free app) have recordings of the different sounds these birds make. You can also find vocalizations on the Cornell website: You might be surprised to learn that you have been listening to them for years without knowing what they were.

Once you have heard the songs, visit a marsh and just listen. Once you hear a bird calling, you can start carefully looking at the base of the vegetation in that area. This will take patience. These birds often stay still for long periods and are not easily spotted.

Finding one of these reticent birds is challenging but can be a lot of fun. The first time I actually saw the American bittern this year, I nearly fell over. I had been staring at it for at least a minute before I realized that it was a bird and not just some old cattails.

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho