Last week while pedaling on the LA River Bikeway a bird in the water caught my eye that I stopped and snapped (click the image for the bigger picture):

Though my first thought was “black-crowned night heron,” it was substantially larger than any I’d seen, plus it didn’t have the typical starkly contrasting plummage much less the telltale black crown.

So I hemmed and hawed and studied the image when what I should have done first and foremost was consult my copy of the indispensable The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada, which had come in handy on so many previous identification occasions.

Instead, I let it be. Then while at the L.A. County Museum of Natural History with Susan last Sunday we ventured into the incredible Hall of Birds and by jove I thought I’d found the answer via a taxidermed specimen in one of the display cases: American bittern!

Certainly there were similarities in the shape and plummage coloration and size, and I was not only thrilled (at least initially) at solving the mystery (I believe I high-fived Susan), but excited by the prospect because while Southern California is considered part of their expansive range, I’d never laid eyes on one before.

But the more I compared my photo with the bittern facts the more I began to doubt it.

Sure enough, this morning I finally made the loooong walk from my desk to my bookcase, pulled out the aforementioned amazing guidebook by John Muir Laws, and there on page 253 were illustrations depicting a mature black-crowned night heron and below that, voila: a juvenile of the species.

It was as if Mr. Laws drew the very same bird I saw.