Rosyfinch Ramblings
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June 2011
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Herons from a distance
Filed under: General, Birding & Outdoors, Florida & SE US, Birding "Patches"
Posted by: Ken @ 8:21 pm

At our South Florida home, we are lucky to live on a lake that is almost a quarter of a mile wide, in back of our home. This gives us a chance to practice identifying the waders that appear on the opposite shore, before reaching for the binoculars to confirm our impressions. Overall size, shape and behavior can be more reliable than color at such a distance. Taking inspiration from Jerry Liguori’s Hawks at a Distance, I found some illustrative examples in my photo collection.

These herons are standing quietly out in the open and staring down into the water with their bills just above the surface at about a 45 degree angle. You probably recognize them, but take a guess before hovering over the thumbnail, or clicking for a full-sized image:

Little Blue Heron immature 20110330

Here is another heron doing the same thing:

Little Blue Heron 2-20110309

And another:

Little Blue Heron 4-20091129

OK, that was not entirely fair, but now you know that all three were the same species. The immature Little Blue Heron is white for its first year, before dark feathers emerge in an interesting symmetrical pattern. Here, a Boat-tailed Grackle chases after a sub-adult Little Blue that is molting into adult plumage:

Grackle chasing Little Blue Heron 20110529

Now, here’s a side-by-side comparison of  two herons that are similar in size and assuming quite similar postures. Note the longer neck and bill of the one to the left, as well as the nearly vertical position of its bill (again, hover or click on the photo for more information):

Tricolored and Little Blue Herons 2-20110108

The Tricolored Heron is an active hunter and stalker; seeing the ripples from the movement of a small fish, it crouches low…

Tricolored Heron stalking a fish 2-20110602

…moves in and gets ready to strike:

Tricolored Heron stalking a fish 20110602

The Tricolored Heron often pursues its prey actively, rushing about in almost randomly as it sights one prey item after another before making a choice:

Tricolored Heron dance 2-20110130

This erratic “dance” in pursuit of prey is also characteristic of the Reddish Egret.

Reddish Egret dancing 4-20110406

In the field, it may be difficult to judge the size of any bird without having a yardstick next to it. I think of the Tricolored Heron as a relatively large bird, but notice how it is dwarfed by the immature Reddish Egret standing next to it (Not perceiving the size differential, some birders actually misidentified the egret as a Little Blue Heron):

Reddish Egret and Tricolored Heron 3-20110408

To my eye, white herons always appear to be larger than they really are. I had to see my photo to appreciate the great difference in size between a delicate Snowy Egret and the Great Egret behind it:

 Egrets 20090330

Close view of a Snowy Egret in our back yard. They also like to actively chase after their prey, sometimes stirring the water with their “golden slippers” to frighten fish into view:

Snowy Egret 4

This Snowy Egret, in the wetlands next to our home, was vigorously stirring the water with its foot, creating a bubble trail as it moved through the shallow water. Its thin black bill helps distinguish it from the immature Little Blue Heron:

Snowy Egret and bubbles 20110406

The Reddish Egret sports a prominent “chin:”

Reddish Egret 20110410

The Great Egret also has a long but less noticeable “chin.” It usually stalks slowly along the water’s edge or through marsh vegetation, its neck fully extended:

Great Egret 20081129

A Great Blue Heron may wait patiently in the same spot for many minutes, or slowly stalk for prey:


The short-legged Green Heron also relies upon stealth, often remaining immobile at the edge of the water in its typical hunting posture, waiting for fish or even attracting them by throwing sticks out as “bait:”

Green Heron 20100301

This Green Heron shows it has a rather long neck that usually is kept tucked in:

Green Heron 20101201

The Green Heron can sometimes look almost black, like a grackle with an oversize bill:

Green Heron 20110605

Cattle Egrets have short yellow bills and usually forage away from the water. This one is hunting for lizards in a hedge along a highway:

Prey Species in Front of Eagle Nest 20100205