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Ace Basin wading bird identification tips

A tricolored heron, resting on a log, can easily be confused with a little blue heron. Photo by Jeff Dennis

Those fortunate to be outside during the spring will notice wading birds filling in every niche of the spartina marshes of the Lowcountry. Hunting and fishing are passions of mine, but bird watching is a constant for those who seek time in the outdoors. Anyone with binoculars can be a birder, and it always pays to be observant because one never knows when the right conditions will add up to a wonderful wading bird memory.
Wednesday March 25 was one of the few warm and sunny days felt in the Lowcountry thus far this spring. While driving through the ACE Basin I noticed a gathering of wading birds near the road and I decided to stop and observe them. The first thing I did correct this day was that I drove past the wading birds before I pulled my truck off to the opposite side of the road. Switching the engine off, I was careful not to slam the door or make any noise that could tip off the gathered flock.
I slipped up behind some palmetto fronds that acted as a natural blind for me, and bingo I was witness to a neat gathering of five different species of wading birds. While it’s not unusual to find a flock of one type of wading bird, like a group of ibis, it’s a little less likely to find multiple species in one place. Having been raised in the Lowcountry I was positive when I identified the great egret, snowy white egret, tricolored heron, ibis and the little blue heron. Of these species, I’d say that the little blue heron is the least encountered of the wading birds.
The sun was striking their position so well I decided to try and make some photographs. They were all doing different things: some were feeding, while others were sitting and preening their feathers, and all gave off a sense of being comfortable in this place. It’s quite likely that others have used this spot for wildlife observations, and that some of the wading birds are not too bothered by those careful not to spook them.
Not long after I began snapping photos, the little blue heron walked near enough to the tricolored heron for a comparison. These two species look very similar and birding books describe one as a medium-sized while the other is smaller-sized for a wading bird. They both wear feathers with a slate blue coloration, but the tricolored heron sports a white streak on his neck and a white belly. On this day the tricolored was hunkering down and did not reveal these telltale markings, so it took a keen eye to identify the pair as two different species.
The great egret and the snowy egret were more easily identified with the large-size great white egret against the small-size of a snowy egret. A pro birding tip I want to pass along is that the snowy egret also has the distinction of having yellow feet. These wading birds walk through pluff mud at low tide while fishing, and the snowy egret is the only one to have what birders refer to as ‘golden slippers,’ So if you ever encounter just a sole egret, and can’t determine which it is via a side by side comparison, then simply watch for the color on their feet.
Finally, a pair of ibis with immature feather markings came walking by, pausing every so often to probe the soft mud with their long and curved bills. They were successful in finding small fish to eat, and they were by far the most active in the bunch of wading birds. The ibis movement did nothing to disturb the other wading birds, and I concluded that the sunshine had them all grateful for spring and for improved fishing.
April is the month when wading birds begin mating and the rookeries of the Lowcountry will once again become crammed with nesting activity. This will translate into extra feeding time and flying greater distances to forage, all of which will make viewing the birds more accessible. Keep an eye out for other birds of the marsh like the wood stork, great blue heron, and yellow-crowned night heron.
A pocket field guide for wading bird identification is nice to have on hand in your car. Many times the viewing of a wading bird will be brief and the best chance to identify them is by immediately looking at photos while the visual is still fresh. Taking a brief moment to properly identify a species can avoid a lot of confusion later, since some wading birds look similar. A larger bird ID book is handy to keep at home to verify wading bird habits, location maps and variations in color.
Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com

Jeff Dennis, Contributor (164 Posts)

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com