Which White Bird Is That?! Is it an Egret? Or a Heron? Or..?
Rookery Bay is like heaven for bird lovers!
You are guaranteed to see beautiful birds while kayaking Rookery Bay on a biologist led tour with Rising Tide Explorers, and the big white birds tend to really stand out visually. There are several very common birds you may see, a few special tricksters that may be mixed in, and some less common but very special species to keep an eye out for! Bring your binoculars, and concentrate on spotting the color on their legs and beaks to tell them apart!
Egrets, Herons, and other wading birds hunt fish, crabs, insects, and crustaceans along the water’s edge and in the shallows. Many are found in southwest Florida year-round, and most of these large wading birds can live to be around twenty years old. Like many birds, some Heron and Egret species grow special feathers during mating season (over winter and into spring), and can be seen roosting high in trees at night.
The best kayak trips to spot these birds, and many more, are the Sunset Bird Rookery Kayak Tour or Boat Cruise where you will journey to a small mangrove island where over a thousand birds fly in to roost every night. Or, the Heart of the Rookery Bay Tour where you explore the Bird Rookery Island and surrounding mangroves by day. Join us on the Mangroves and Mudflats Kayak Tour where you explore the dense mangrove tunnels and mudflats beloved birds for foraging.
The Great Egret is frequently seen at the edges of the water, standing stock still, waiting to ambush a fish or crab. In the late 1800’s they were hunted almost to extinction for their fancy breeding plumage feathers which were used as decorations on hats and military uniforms. They are often the one of the first birds to fly home to roost, so keep an eye out for them on the Sunset Bird Rookery Kayak Tour.
How to recognize them: Great Egrets are among the largest white birds you will see. Their feathers are all white, they have black legs and feet, and a yellow bill. Breeding season (March-April) is a special treat, the breeding adults grow long feathery plumes on their backs to use during courtship displays, and a patch of skin around their bill turns bright green.
Another one of the most common birds you will see in the estuary, Snowy Egrets are most easily identified by their yellow feet, which they use to stir up the water to find fish and crabs to eat. Like the Great White Egret, they were nearly hunted to extinction for their long breeding feathers. Both males and females sit on the nest to incubate eggs, and when one partner takes over it sometimes presents its partner with a stick, as if they are passing a baton.
How to recognize them: The Snowy Egret is much smaller than a Great White, they have black bills with yellow skin around it, black legs, and bright yellow feet (greenish yellow most of the year, bright yellow orange during breeding).
White Ibis are the other most common white bird you will see in the estuary, and all over Florida, from yards and roadsides to wetlands. They are very gregarious, often moving together in groups across the landscape in search of insects in the grass, or fish in the water.
Ibis are known to be the last birds to leave before a hurricane, and the first to return. They can be seen every evening on the Sunset Bird Rookery Kayak Tour flying in to the Rookery Island in large groups, and often on the Mangroves and Mudflats tours poking around on the mudflats or resting in trees during the day.
How to recognize them: That bright pink long curved bill with matching skin around it, and those bright pink legs! Juveniles have brown backs, necks, legs, and bills, and white bellies.
Terns can often be seen flying over the estuary looking for fish to catch by diving down into the water. Terns fly like fighter jets, and can hover in the air when they spot a fish as they calculate their trajectory.
In the 1800’s Terns were a fashionable accessory and in addition to their feathers, entire birds were stuffed and pinned to hats, many species were on the verge of extinction until the Migratory Bird Act was passed in 1919.
How to recognize them: They look like gulls, but much more sleek and refined, with shorter legs and a bright orange pointed beak. Several species of Terns can be seen in Rookery Bay- Common, Royal, Forester’s, and Least, and they all look fairly similar.
Pop Quiz! Can you identify these two?
Answers are at the bottom of the page 🙂
Reddish Egrets have two color phases as adults, the dark
phase, where they have a shaggy rusty colored neck and a slate grey body, and a white phase. They are found on salt water throughout the Caribbean, and coastal Florida to Mexico.
How to recognize them: Reddish Egret can be best distinguished by their behavior- they are often running around like maniacs, frantically hunting fish in the shallow water. In the white adult breeding phase they have all white feathers, black legs, and a very distinct bill that is half orange and half black at the tip. Juveniles in a white phase have white feathers, and solid black legs and bill.
Little Blue Heron
Little Blue Herons are year-round residents in Florida, but attract little attention because they quietly and calmly stalk in the shadows along the water’s edge.
They nest among other egrets and juveniles have white feathers for the first year of their life to help them blend in and be tolerated by Great White and Snowy Egrets in the rookery.
Little blue herons have a built in comb along the edge of their middle toes that they use to clean and organize their feathers.
How to recognize them: Juveniles have white feathers, a two toned bill that is grey at the base and black at the tip, and greenish grey legs. Try to spot an immature bird as they are gaining their adult feathers- they go through a calico faze where they have white and blue feathers!
Cattle Egrets prefer open fields and are unlikely to be seen in the estuary, but they are good to know because you will likely see them at some point in Florida, as they are year-round residents. Cattle egrets are new to the US, they are originally from Africa, and arrived in America in the 1950’s.
How to recognize them: If it is an egret in a field foraging for insects among the feet of cattle, it is a cattle egret. They are mostly white, but have golden feathers on their head, back, and chest. Adults are small and have short yellow legs and a yellow beak. Juveniles are entirely white, with black legs and bill.
Occasionally seen in the estuary of Rookery Bay, the Wood Stork is found year-round along the coast and wetlands of Florida, although they seem to favor roadside ditches and canals for foraging fish and crustaceans. Keep an eye out for them soaring on thermals above you while you paddle, with their necks and legs outstretched. Take a good look if you see one, they are not found anywhere in the US other than Florida!
How to recognize them: They are very large- around three feet tall. They have mostly white feathers, with very distinctive black wingtip flight feathers, naked black necks, long curved black beaks, black legs and pink feet.
American White Pelican
Sometimes seen soaring high over Rookery Bay, the White Pelican is one of the biggest birds in America. Instead of diving into the water to catch fish like the more common Brown Pelican, the White Pelican sits on the water surface and dips its bill into the water to scoop up fish, and they often work together to herd fish along the shoreline.
They also tend to hang out with Double-crested Cormorants, both when fishing and roosting, and they often try to steal fish from the Cormorants. White Pelicans do not breed in Florida, they just visit during the winter. Fewer than 60 breeding colonies exist, located in the Northern US and Southern Canada. Breeding adults grow a horn on top of their bill.
How to recognize them: They are huge, and may be spotted soaring high over the bay, similar to the Wood Storks and much smaller White Ibis, they are white birds with black wing tips. Look for the distinctive orange pelican bill and white neck to distinguish them from large Wood Storks. If you get a chance, visit the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, they have been spotted in the lagoon by the observation tower.
Great White Heron
The Great White Heron is thought by some to be a color morph of the Great Blue Heron, but others believe it is a unique species found only in South Florida and the Florida Keys.
How to recognize them: They are identical to Great Egrets (white feathers, yellow bill), but they have yellow legs and feet instead of black.
I’m Ready! Show me the birds!
What’s the best time to see them?
Our favorite, by far, is the Sunset Bird Rookery Kayak Tour, because you can see them all together, and in huge numbers.
Our current record is over 1,400 birds roosting at once!!
Want to have your hands free to hold binoculars and a camera? Join us for the Sunset Bird Rookery Cruise.
For more information on how to get out and explore the estuaries of Naples and Marco Island on a biologist guided kayak tour with Rising Tide Explorers, visit www.RisingTideFL.com.