California Nature

Learn about California's beautiful and unique nature.

California Wading Birds
The family Ardeidae contains the herons, egrets, and bitterns. Herons and Egrets are medium to large sized wading birds with long necks and legs. Bitterns tend to be shorter necked and more secretive. Unlike other long necked birds such as storks, ibises and spoonbills, members of Ardeidae fly with their necks retracted. There are 61 species world wide, 17 North American species, and 12 Californian species.

The american bittern often hides in marsh grassesThe largest and most widespread heron in North America, the Great Blue Heron can be found along the ocean shore or the edge of a small inland pond. Although the Great Blue Heron eats primarily fish, it is adaptable and willing to eat other animals as well. Several studies have found that voles (mice) were a very important part of the diet, making up nearly half of what was fed to nestlings in Idaho. Occasionally a heron will choke to death trying to eat a fish that is too large to swallow.

The bittern, a species of heron, spends its life among tall, aquatic vegetation like cattails or sawgrass, in freshwater and saltwater marshes or at the borders of lakes. It stands over two feet tall. Its color, a buff brown back, creamy underparts with brown flecking, greenish legs, allows it to blend with the surroundings, as does its behavior. To remain concealed when alarmed, the bird freezes with its head pointed skyward, resembling reeds. If wind stirs the vegetation, the bittern may also sway its head. Sun-gazer, the American bittern is called, as well as Stake Driver, Thunder Pump and Mire Drum. The names refer to the bittern's call, a deep resonant oonk-a-lunk, which has been likened to the bellowing of a bull or a hydraulic machine. It's odd that a bird this secretive makes such a racket. Since the bittern is a winter visitor to California, we rarely hear its weird vocalizations, mostly made during the spring and summer. American bittern occur throughout California November through April, mostly in freshwater marshes, before returning to the northern U.S. and southern Canada to breed. Their numbers have been declining over the past three decades at an average rate of 2.4 percent per year, mostly due to loss of wetlands.

The white ibis is about two feet tall and has a wingspan of about three feet. It is entirely white except for its black-edged wings. Its blacked tipped wings may not be noticeable when the ibis is at rest, but are easily seen when it is in flight. White Ibis have a long, down-curved reddish-orange bill and a reddish-orange face. Its legs are long and gray, except for during breeding season when they turn reddish-orange. Young white ibis are brown on their upper sides and white on their undersides and they have brown bills and legs. The white ibis wades in the water sweepings its heads form side-to-side in search of food. It uses its long, curved bill to probe in the mud for crabs and crayfish. It swallows its prey whole. The white ibis also forages for food on land and it may also eat insects, frogs, snails, marine worms, snakes and small fish. Flocks of white ibis will move to different locations in search of food. Other wading birds often follow behind the white ibis and catch prey that has been disturbed by the probing ibis!

roseate spoonbill is a beautiful sight in California natureIs it the luminous pale pink plumage with red highlights or the long bill with the spoon shaped tip that so enchants those lucky enough to view the roseate spoonbill, a long-legged wader that is a member of the ibis family? The spatulate bill of this species has an important function. It has sensitive nerve endings that help the spoonbill detect prey. As it sweeps the bill from side to side through shallow water, the spoonbill encounters small fish, shrimp, crayfish, fiddler crabs and aquatic insects, which it snaps up and swallows.

The tricolored heron is about 22 inches in length and has a wingspan of about three feet. It has slate blue feathers on most of its body except for a white chest and belly and a rust-colored neck. It has long yellow legs, a white stripe that runs up its neck and long pointed yellow bill. The bill turns blue during breeding season. Males and females look alike. The tricolored heron wades in the water in search of prey. It mostly eats fish but it also will eat amphibians, insects and crustaceans. The tricolored heron can be found in marshes, swamps, bayous, mudflats, lagoons and coastal ponds.

The reddish egret reach 27-32 inches in length, with a 46-49 inch wing span. It is a medium-sized, long-legged, long-necked heron with a long pointed pinkish bill with a black tip. The legs and feet are bluish-black. The sexes are similar, but there are two color variations. The adult dark morph has a slate blue body and reddish head and neck with shaggy plumes. The adult white morph has completely white body plumage. Young birds have a brown body, head, and neck. The snowy egret is a medium sized. all white, heron. This bird has an average weight of 13-14 ounces and is typically about 24 inches long. A small, active bird, the Snowy Egret is found in small ponds as well as along the ocean shore. Its black legs and yellow feet and snowy white body quickly identify it. The snowy egret has a long, thin neck, bill and legs. Their flat, shallow nests are made of sticks and lined with fine twigs and rushes. Three to four greenish-blue, oval eggs are incubated by both adults.

The little blue heron often lives near saltwater, but is mainly an inland bird. The Little Blue Heron is a small, dark bird that ranges from 23-27 inches in length. It can have a wingspread of up to 40 inches. The sexes look similar, but the young look very different from the adults. An adult little blue heron can be recognized by its purple-maroon head and neck. The rest of the plumage is slate gray. The long neck is usually held in an "S" shaped curve while the bird is at rest or in flight. The heron's long, slender bill curves slightly downward, and is also dark gray but has a black tip. The young are unlike any other heron because they have all white body plumage. They have a blue bill with a black tip and dull green legs.

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