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Florida Everglades

Herons in Florida

Southwest Florida is home to many varieties of herons that include the Great Blue Heron, Louisiana Heron, Little Blue Heron, Great White Heron, Little Green Heron, Wurdemann's Heron, and the Night Herons. These beautiful waterbirds are truly delightful to observe and each have their own distinctive characteristics and habits. Let's break them down so you can identify which one is which...

The Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias, is a large wading bird commonly found along the shores and in wetland areas of North and Central America. The Great Blue Heron is the largest of the North American herons, averaging anywhere from 36-55 inches in height. With its body of grey feathers, the neck is brown and its thighs are a reddish brown, but its cheeks, crown and throat are all white. The bill is a dull yellow and its long legs are a pale brown, and its wing-span can measure up to six feet. While its primary food is small fish, it will also feed on other aquatic fare such as crabs, insects and shrimp, as well as other smaller mammals, reptiles and amphibians – swallowing it whole. It spears its food with its long sharp bill.

In a bulky stick nest, oftentimes located in a rookery filled with other wading birds, the Great Blue Heron females will lay anywhere from three to six pale blue eggs - called a clutch - and only one brood is raised each year. Both male and female will feed the young by regurgitating their food. The eggs are incubated for around 28 days, with the chicks hatching asynchronously (not at the same time) over a period of several days.

Wurdemann's Heron, Ardea wurdemanni, was named after a former Smithsonian Institute collector of the 1850s, Gustavus Wurdemann. The American Ornithologists Union (AOU) - the final judge of bird classification in scientific circles has determined that the Wurdemann's Heron is to be considered another color form of the Great Blue Heron; much to the chagrin of bird watchers. It can only be found in very limited numbers in the Florida Keys, catching his fish and often begging from local fishermen. This heron has a pure white head situated on its grey-blue body.

The Louisiana Heron, Egretta tricolor, a tri-colored bird, has been called “Lady of the Waters” by Audubon because of its beauty and grace. Its name is indeed misleading, although it does reside in Louisiana, but it can also be found in other coastal states including North Carolina and Texas as well as Florida. A common bird, it is much smaller, at approximately 22 inches in height, and more delicate than the Great Blue Heron that it closely resembles; and its white belly clearly distinguishes it from all other herons. The Louisiana Heron does not swim, but does wade into deeper waters and it fishes by striding briskly through the water, oftentimes actually running after the fish which are caught with a quick thrust of the beak into the water.

Beginning life as a completely white bird before turning a mottled brown, the Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea, is a small heron, approximately 24 inches in height, whose feathers finally turn an intense blue that will last for the remainder of its life. Two major distinguishing features on the Little Blue Heron are its bluish-beak with a black tip.

The statuesque beauty, the Great White Heron, Ardea occidentalis, is indeed a sight to behold, with its pure white plumage. It can be seen in the Florida Keys as well as in the Everglades National Park in a town known as Flamingo. Their limited ranges means small numbers and their populations have been dangerously decimated by major hurricanes over the years. The Great White Heron National Refuge, located in the Florida Keys in 1938, was created for their protection.

The Little Green Heron, Butorides virescens, is known to be a shy bird, keeping out of human sight whenever possible, who favors both grassy edges of lakes as well as the swampy areas. This heron measures only 17-inches and adult females tend to be even smaller than males. The key to its fishing technique is his incredible patience before the deadly strike. Did you know the Little Green Heron has been dubbed a “comfort movement” by animal behavioral scientists because of its extraordinary ability to contract its neck into almost unbelievable lengths? This stretching motion most likely is useful to the heron when digesting his food. It has been described as the bird equivalent of taking Rolaids.

Did you know there were two kinds of Night Herons here in Florida? One is Yellow-crowned and the other is Black-crowned. The Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Nyctanassa violacea, can been found feeding in the shallows by those spending time around the local bays and inland waterways. It is very common here in Florida. Interestingly though, the Black-crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax, is actually a much larger, roughly 25-inches in height, and stockier bird over the Yellow-crowned heron, with a spectacular white plume on its head. While common world-wide, its appearance here in Florida is indeed rare. As their name implies, these herons “work” at night, fishing in the shallow waters.

There are several known locations nearby that are great for observing these various herons that you might want to check out on your next excursion. In nearby St. Petersburg, north of the main span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge you can see the Great Blue Herons. In our local Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, visitors can often see the Little Blue Herons. On the other coast near the Kennedy Space Center one can view numerous herons at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Heading south to the Everglades National Park there can often be found large concentrations of herons and the Florida Keys are known for the beautiful, but vanishing, Great White Heron as well as possibly the Wurdemann's Heron.


The ABCs of the Florida Landscape is written by freelance writer Maureen Sullivan-Hartung who has resided in Naples now for 30 years and loves learning about all aspects of the local flora and fauna. Another passion of hers is local history and she authored a book in November 2010, titled, Hidden History of Everglades City & Points Nearby, published by The History Press. Check her website for the book's availability or additional information about the author at >www.maureenwrites.com


Be sure to check out these books for additional information on the many types of herons:

Birds of Florida by Bill Pranty, Kurt Radamaker and Gregory Kennedy, 2006

Birds of Florida Field Guide by Stan Tekiela, 2005

Common Coastal Birds of Florida & the Caribbean by David W. Nellis, 2001

Florida's Birds: A Field Guide and Reference by David S. Maehr, Herbert W. Kale and Karl Karalus, 2005

Florida's Fabulous Waterbirds by Winston Williams, 1983

Herons (Wetland Animals) by Margaret Hall, children's book 4-8 years, 2006

National Audubon Society Field Guide to Florida by Peter Alden and Rick Cech, 1998

National Geographic Field Guides to Birds: Florida by Mel Baughman, 2005

Seashore & Wading Birds, Patricia E. Pope, 1974

Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of Florida by Fred J. Alsop, 2002

Photos courtesy of Southwest Florida Water Management