Tricolored Heron – Birds of South Florida

Birds of South Florida series

Blue head, white plume, red eyes… what’s that bird?

South Florida is home to over 360 species of birds. Among them, the majority are water fowl. With so many species, and so many sub-species of the same bird, it is often hard to identify many in the field. In addition to that, many birds can appear in different plumage at different times of the year. What’s a new budding birder to do?

Today we are going to take a look at a coastal bird, the Tricolored Heron, or Egretta Tricolor.  These birds inhabit the coastlines of the southeastern United States, Mexico, the Caribbean islands and northern parts of Central and South America. Let’s take a closer look at these interesting birds.

Identification of the Tricolored Heron

So how do we identify this heron?

Once known as the Louisiana heron, this medium-sized, slender heron of the southeastern United States, is usually found foraging along the water’s edge. They can wade in water as deep as around seven inches.

The Tricolored Heron has a dusky slate blue gray body with a slightly rusty colored back of the neck, while the underside of the neck is white along with a white belly. It has a long, slender neck and bill, and notably long legs. This bird measures about 26 inches long and weighs 13 ounces, with a 36-inch wingspan.

During breeding season, the Tricolored Heron sports a short white head plume not notably present in other months, along with a buffy white throat and fore-neck, a blue face, and a blue bill tipped with black. The eyes are reddish, and the legs pinkish or bluish.

Male Tricolored Heron Breeding Plumage
Adult male Tricolored heron sporting breeding plumage
Tricolored Heron 1
Female Tricolor heron on nest. Notice breeding plume. Adults are mostly steel blue, with rust patches on neck and white plume and red eyes during breeding season.

Non-breeding adults have a yellow face, bill, and legs; the throat and fore-neck are white, the body is slate blue with slight rust color on neck.

Juvenile Tricolored Herons lack the blue of the parents and instead are adorned with the rich chestnut red on the head, neck, upper back, and the front parts of the wings, with white on the underside of the neck and belly. They have yellowish eyes and yellowish gray beak and legs.

Quick Identification

Use the table below to quickly identify Tricolored Herons in the field and to distinguish between breeding and non breeding adults, as well as juvenile birds. Note that the male and female of the species are largely the same in coloration, although the males do tend to be larger than the females.

There is also a quick reference for similar species and how to distinguish them.

Field Guide For Quick Identification

Breeding Adult Non Breeding Adult Juvenile
Slate Blue Body, slight rust back of neck Slate blue body, slight rust back of neck Rusty red head, back of neck, upper back and front part of wings
White throat and foreneck White underside of neck and belly White underside of neck and belly
Tall, slender pinkish or bluish legs Tall, slender yellowish legs Tall, slender yellowish legs
Blue face, blue bill tipped with black Yellow face and bill Yellowish gray bill
Reddish eyes Reddish eyes Yellowish gray eyes

This is a general guide. Variations between individual birds within the species are common.

Similar Species

The Tricolored Heron is sometimes mistaken for two other similar species here in South Florida:

  • The Little Blue Heron is slightly smaller and stockier, and lacks white belly, white line down throat, and white head plumes.
  • The Great Blue Heron is much larger, lacks the white belly, and has a paler neck.

Examples of Habitat

Habitat

Tricolored herons are mostly a solitary bird except during breeding season. They forage around bodies of water, wading into shallow water, usually up to seven inches deep.These herons have adapted well to urban areas as well, as seen in the accompanying pictures. However, it is crucial that they remain undisturbed during nesting periods, as the young can be flushed from the nest very early.

Primarily a coastal bird, the Tricolored Heron is most commonly found in saltwater wetlands, such as shallow salt marshes, coastal lagoons, mudflats, tidal creeks and mangrove swamps. However, you can find them in freshwater canals, streams, and lakes as well.

What regions are Tricolored Herons native to?

You will find Tricolored Herons in the southeastern United States, from Texas to Florida, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, among other coastlines. You will also find them in Mexico, the Caribbean islands, Central America and northern South America.
Did You Know?
  • Tricolored herons have diurnal vision, specialized for daytime foraging. They have extreme accuracy, being able to detect and see moving fish easily underneath the surface of even agitated water (during windy conditions).
  • The young of Tricolored Herons have a mortality rate three times as high as most of their counterparts. This is due in part to the ability of the young to move around at an early age and wander away from the safety of the nest.
  • These birds are extremely sensitive to high mercury levels in the fish they eat, which causes their egg shells to be very thin.

What Do Tricolored Herons Eat?

Tricolored Herons eat mostly fish, but will also eat amphibians, such as frogs or salamanders, if they can catch them. They will eat insects and crustaceans of any kind.

You will often see them wading into shallow water and shuffling their feet. This will cause small fish to dart short distances. They have a sharp eye and when a fish is within striking distance, they will thrust their long, slender neck forward and spear the fish.

They will also spread their wings randomly to create shadows that scare the fish and cause them to move.

Nesting

Tricolored Herons nest in colonies, near other herons or mixed species of birds. They usually nest by building large platforms of sticks in reeds, in thick vegetation on high banks, or low lying branches of trees and structure.

From February until May, it is the male who begins to build the nest. Once he has found a mate, the female will help to finish the nest of loose twigs, usually up to 3.5 meters above the water in a shaded area. Herons are monogamous and very devoted parents.

They will lay three to five bluish eggs and both parents will take turns incubating the eggs for approximately 22 days. The young can start moving short distances away from the nest as early as 14 – 17 days, beginning to perch at the side of the nest, or in some cases, wander through thick vegetation near the nest, finding their own insects and other food between parental feedings.

The young will leave the nest around 21 days and will leave the colony around 51 to 56 days.

Nesting Birds and Young

Two young hatchlings wandering near nest
Two young hatchlings wandering near nest

Predation

The young of Tricolored Herons are vulnerable to attack. The parents will defend the nest vigorously against predators. However, the young will start to wander from nests after only two to three weeks, though they stay in the vicinity.

Animals such as raccoons, snakes, crows and ravens will readily eat the eggs or young hatchlings. Owls will also take the young. Larger birds of prey, such as osprey, are opportunistic and will readily take them if given the chance.

Identifying the Tricolored Heron by Flight Pattern

The Tricolored Heron flies with legs extended and the head drawn back to the shoulders using strong, steady, evenly spaced wing beats. Although it usually flies alone, on occasion they have been observed flying in small flocks.

It will rapidly descend from flight by partly folding its wings and rocking from side to side in a manner similar to a falling leaf.

With the exception of South American populations, most tricolored herons migrate with birds from southern and eastern USA migrating southwards to Central America and the Caribbean.

 

 Threats to the Species

While the Tricolored Heron is not on the endangered list, like many other animals, it is threatened in parts of its range by disturbance, habitat loss and pollution.

While they have been quick to adapt to urban environments, they are particularly vulnerable to human interference while nesting. They are also susceptible to toxins and pesticides which build up in their bodies from the food they eat which cause their eggs to have very thin shells that break easily.

The Tricolored Heron may occasionally be hunted for food, and its eggs may be harvested. Culls are also occasionally permitted around aquaculture farms to limit the impacts of this species’ predation upon farmed crustacean stocks. In the Florida Everglades, the tricolored heron population has been in decline as a result of habitat degradation and associated decreased food availability.

These birds have benefited by such protected places as the National Wildlife Refuge System along the coast. It is also profiting from the construction and maintenance of artificial islands on the Atlantic coast, which protects nesting birds from terrestrial mammalian predators that cannot access the islands.

Other things that help tremendously are including designated pathways at a certain distance from nesting sites to prevent nest disturbance.

What Can You Do?

The important thing is to remember that we all have a responsibility to care for the Earth since we share it with other creatures. Respect their home.

If you do come across these birds in the wild, observe them as unobtrusively as possible. Keep a respectful distance and do not let your presence interfere with their daily routines. This is very important for young birds, as they are mobile quickly and can start wandering from nests and away from their parent’s protection within a couple weeks. Also, some adults have been known to abandon nests after human interference.

Knowledge is responsibility!

Let’s all do what we can to preserve the environment to the best of our ability so that countless other generations will also be able to enjoy these birds and see them the way that they were meant to be seen and enjoyed…. always wild and free!

Juvenile Tricolored Heron Final
Tricolored heron juvenile in sunlight ©2017 Ofwaterfallsandtrails Photography

Tricolored Heron in natural habitat

To see a beautiful video of a tricolored heron in its natural habitat, please watch the video below by Stoil Ivanov.

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