(Cattle Egret photo courtesy of wikipedia.com)
Here are photos of more of the heron species that you can find here in Tidewater:
The Green Heron, above (photo courtesy of wikipedia.com) is a small heron that breeds and summers here in wet and swampy places. You’ll usually find it at the water’s edge or on a branch overhanging the water, waiting for prey. These birds have been know to drop insects and other small objects into the water to attract fish, making it one of very few animals that uses tools.
This bird above is an adult Little Blue Heron, a small heron of southeastern and subtropical swamps. Surprisingly, the young birds (photo below) are all white except for a little bit of black in the wing, and they can be confused with egrets to those who aren’t familiar with the differences. According to wikipedia.com, these young white birds mingle with Snowy Egrets, and actually catch more fish when in their company; they also gain a measure of protection from predators when in these mixed flocks. One theory is that it is because of these advantages that the Little Blues remain white for their first year.
Below is one of my favorites, a Tri-colored Heron. This species used to be called the Louisiana Heron. It is a breeder in the Gulf and southeastern states only, another bird of southern and subtropical swamps. This bird is a juvenile I saw on the Eastern Shore in late summer.
These last two herons are “night herons.” The name refers to their preference for noctural feeding, although you will see them during the day as well. The first bird (below) is a Black-crowned Night Heron, a species that occurs throughout most of North America. The second bird is another specialty of the southeastern states, the Yellow-crowned Night Heron.
(top: Black-crowned Night Heron, Newport News)
(bottom:Yellow-crowned Night Heron at Weyanoke Sanctuary, Portsmouth)
Bitterns are another classification of birds in the heron family. They tend to be short-necked, have brown streaky underparts, and have very secretive habits. They reside in the reeds and grasses in extensive marshes; if you’re lucky enough to see one it’s usually because it happens to be feeding at the water’s edge, or it has taken flight. Even when bitterns are out in the open they are very difficult to spot because of their unique defense mechanism of “freezing” in place. They raise their heads, pointing their bills straight up at the sky, and stand motionless against the background of reeds and grasses; their own brown streaky underparts blend in perfectly with the grasses. If a breeze blows the grasses, the bittern will “sway” along with the grass so it continues to blend in. Perfect camoflage! We get two species of bittern in our area, one during the winter and one during the summer.
The American Bittern (photo, above) is a large bird that winters in places like the thick marshes at Back Bay. The Least Bittern is the smallest heron found in the Americas, measuring only about a foot in length. Because of its habits and its size, it is extremely difficult to find even though it is quite common in certain places in the summer. Your best bet is to walk along the dikes at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in late May or early June, very early in the morning. If you do this, you’ll be sure to see several Least Bitterns making short flights through the marshes. (Photo of a Least Bittern, right, taken at Anahuac N.W.R., TX.)
It might seem confusing at first, trying to identify the different species of large waders. Your best bet starting out is to go birding with someone who already has some experience in identifying them, and can help in pointing out the different field marks. Another good bet is to study the birding field guides before you ever go out into the field. I keep preaching this, but it’s very helpful to have a bird’s picture in your head before you see the actual bird, and understand when and where you are likely to encounter a particular bird. If you see a large white wader in Chesapeake, you’ll know that it’s not a Whooping Crane, because you have already learned that that species does not occur here; it is far more likely to be a Great Egret, which is quite common here. The books are invaluable in helping you to “know your birds,” but nothing can replace the experience you gain yourself out in the field. Spring is right around the corner now (at last!) and breeding birds will start arriving soon, so I encourage you to check out a bird guide at your library and head for your nearest wetland. Have a wonderful time, and always feel free to contact me if you’re perplexed about a bird you’re having trouble identifying.