A Mini Field Guide to Herons of the Finger Lakes

02/07/2022
story and photos by Bill Banaszewski

I am neither a professional ornithologist or an expert birder. However, since childhood I have had a fascination with all wildlife, including birds. After graduating from college, I was asked to develop the Environmental Conservation program in 1970 at CCFL, now FLCC. Following my near 40-year teaching career and into retirement, I continue to explore and photograph wildlife in my travels and here in the Finger Lakes.   

Years ago I sat in an Ornithology class taught by the late Dr. Christopher White, a environmental conservation colleague of mine at the college. He began by saying,  “All egrets and bitterns are herons.” I remember thinking – could he have misspoken? He went on to explain that birds, like all living organisms, are classified by a system that reflects similarities between species. Herons, egrets, and bitterns share many characteristics: they are all medium to large wading birds with long legs and necks, spear-like bills, and their necks are held in an “S” shape in flight. As such, they are classified together in the Heron family, Ardeidae.

Late in the 19th and early 20th centuries some herons, particularly the Great and Snowy Egrets, were nearly brought to extinction. Plume hunters relentlessly slaughtered and sold the birds for the millinery market. Back then it was fashionable for women to wear hats adorned with feathers, wings and even entire birds. The fine breeding plumes, the aigrettes, of both the Snowy and Great Egrets were immensely valuable. Snowies were pursued the most by hunters because their plumes were particularly delicate. Further they were easily taken because they were less shy and more plentiful than the Great Egret. Adult birds were killed during the breeding season, leaving nestlings to starve, and the populations plummeted. 

As a result of this senseless slaughter the American conservation movement was formed, and groups like the Audubon Society succeeded in having Congress establish laws to stop the killings and to protect critical habitat for herons and other species. Although there is growing pressure to drain wetlands for development and agriculture, the current status of most herons is generally good. 

Eleven different herons are now known to spend part of their year here in the Finger Lakes. Perhaps this guide can help you hone your observation and identification skills.

Great Blue Heron (1)
(Ardea herodias)

The great blue heron is the largest and most common heron in the Finger Lakes with recorded sightings year-round. It has gray-blue feathers, a white crown with black plumes, dark legs, and a large, yellowish, dagger-like bill. They stalk their prey or still-hunt, feeding on almost anything that comes their way including snakes, mice and even squirrels. When they are startled they bark like a dog. The great blue heron is a stately bird, graceful in its movements and is often seen as a statuesque feature in a wetland landscape.   

Herons nest in colonies known as rookeries, and while many herons migrate south to nest, there are numerous great blue heron breeding rookeries here in our region. One large rookery at the Sterling Nature Center in northern Cayuga County near the shores of Lake Ontario is well worth a visit. Thirty or more large stick nests sit high atop dead trees in this wetland preserve. During June and July it is a raucous place. Young herons clamor to be fed. On one of my visits a bald eagle circled overhead, and the screaming and squawking of the adults was ear-piercing. Strength in numbers that comes with nesting in rookeries deterred the eagle that day.

Little Blue Heron (2)

(Egretta caerulea)

Adult little blue herons have purple-maroon heads and dark blue bodies. Unique among herons, a juvenile has all white plumage; at this stage they are often mistaken for snowy egrets. Smaller than a great blue, they are stealth stalkers wading in shallow waters in search of fish, but also feeding on crayfish and insects. Their range has expanded north into the Finger Lakes since the 1970s, but they are only seen occasionally. 

Tricolored Heron (3)

(Egretta tricolor)

Formerly called the Louisiana heron, the tricolored has dark slate colors on its head, neck and back; white under parts; and reddish brown stripes on its face and neck. It is the only dark colored heron with white under parts. About the same size as a little blue, they seem larger because of their long slender necks and long yellowish bills. 

While feeding, the tricolored wades into water sometimes up to its belly. Pursuing prey in shallow water they dash about –wings flapping and raised; and then they swiftly change directions to capture small fish that are confused by their antics. Like the little blue they are occasional visitors in the region.

Green Heron (4)

(Butorides virescens)

The green heron is actually more blue than green. It has a rusty colored neck, a dark cap and a bright yellow eye. They are short, stocky birds with short legs. Sometimes they appear not to have a neck at all as they hold their heads tucked close to their bodies.

Green herons hunt motionlessly, partially concealed by vegetation in shallow water or from overhanging branches. I watched one hanging vertically from a branch with its bill poised just above the surface of the water. With lightning speed it plucked an unsuspecting fish from just below the surface. Greens have been observed using “tools” to attract fish, their primary food source, by placing small feathers, leaves or insects on the water. When a fish swims in to check it out, it will likely be captured. 

They are vocal birds and when alarmed and flushed, they let out a bold “kuck-kuck” sound. Next to the great blue, greens are the most common here in the Finger Lakes.

Black-crowned

Night-Heron (5)

(Nycticorax nycticorax)

Black-crowned night herons are stocky, medium sized birds. They have, as their name indicates, a black cap and black-gray upper wings, a white face, head, and neck, and a distinctive red eye. They feed on a typical heron diet but also consume eggs, young birds, and even plant material. Despite being “night-herons” they can be seen during daylight hours feeding or roosting in trees. 

On several occasions I have spotted juvenile black-crowned night herons at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. At this stage their feathers have brown-gray streaks and spots, and their eyes are yellow, making them difficult to distinguish from American bitterns. They have been recorded here year-round, but are most likely to be spotted in late summer.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (6)

(Nyctanassa violacea)

The yellow-crowned night-heron is a short-necked, stocky bird with a gray streaked body, large black head, yellowish forehead, white cheeks and yellow eyes. They are active all hours of the day and night in wetlands, along creeks and sometimes in wet fields. Their extensive diet includes fish, tadpoles, snakes, turtles, worms, leeches, snails, insects, eggs, young birds and small mammals. Their population expanded north in the early 20th century before contracting in the 1950s. They are occasionally seen between March and October in the Finger Lakes. 

Great Egret (7)  (Ardea alba)

The great egret, also known as the common egret, is the tallest and most stately of the egrets. They have yellow bills, black legs, and all of their feathers are white. Typically they stand still and hunt alone in shallow water, but with their long legs they can also search for prey in deeper water. 

During the breeding season great egrets develop long, graceful and beautiful plumes on their backs and tails. When I observe this stunning display in Florida, I only wish such beautiful sights were available to folks in the Finger Lakes. Each year they wander far north of their breeding grounds, and with warming temperatures they are hanging around later into the fall months. They are common at Montezuma.

Snowy Egret (8) (Egretta thula)

The snowy egret is a dainty, graceful bird with pure white, delicate plumage. The snowy’s black legs and bill, yellow eyes, and golden slippers create quite a contrast. They are very active when feeding running, dancing, and sometimes wiggling one foot in flowing water to startle and capture fish. They also feed in small flocks, sprinting through shallow water and herding fish for the kill. They have been recorded here from late March into early November, but they are considered rare.

Cattle Egret (9) (Bubulcus ibis)

Cattle egrets are small, stocky birds with generally white bodies, yellow to orange bills and dark green to black legs. They are considered the misfits of the heron family because they are the most terrestrial, seldom foraging in water. Here in the Finger Lakes I have seen them following cows, horses and other livestock feeding on the insects that are uprooted. I have also seen them perch on the backs of cows and then fly off to follow working tractors as they till up grubs. They have adapted well to modern machinery in their environments. 

The expansion of the cattle egret range has been well documented. Colonized throughout the United States, populations were increasing into northern ranges. More recently their numbers have declined to the point where they are only occasionally seen in our area, notably in October or November. 

American Bittern (10) (Botaurus lentiginosus)

The American bittern is stocky and mostly brown streaked with a thick neck, short legs and a yellow bill. It is a shy and solitary bird of marshes. When alarmed it tries to conceal itself by pointing its bill skyward, sometimes swaying its head back and forth mimicking vegetation blowing in the wind. My first encounter with an American bittern occurred when I heard a pumping-like sound coming from a small wetland in my woodlot, “punk-a-lunk, punk-a-lunk.” I followed the sound, and then it stopped. I was just about to give up when I noticed the bittern with its head pointed upwards. Its light and dark brown vertical streaking made it barely discernible among the cattails. I watched as it captured water beetles off the surface of the pond. Although not often seen they are fairly common in the region.

Least Bittern (11) (Lyorychus exilis)

The least bittern is the smallest member of the heron family. Their whitish underparts are streaked; their crown, rump and back are glossy black; and their bills are yellow. They have buff inner wing patches which are visible in flight. 

The least is more often heard than seen. Of all of the eleven herons here in the Finger Lakes, I have heard its hard “kak-kak” sound from the thick marshy vegetation at the Conesus Lake Wildlife Management Area, but I have never seen one in the Finger Lakes. Knowledge of their vocalization will help alert you to this secretive bird. 

Like the American bittern, its larger cousin, the least is shy and freezes with its head pointed skyward to avoid detection. They can perch deftly several feet above water on slender cattails because of their small size, long toes, and narrow bodies. This would be a rare sight.   

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