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Living Sanibel: Heron today, hopefully tomorrow

By Staff | Nov 5, 2014

Little Blue Heron

Although the little blue heron was not as much a target of the millinery trade as other local species at the turn of the last century, it is suffering now from drained wetlands and habitat loss. Unlike some other herons and egrets, it is seldom seen along the barrier island beaches, preferring fresh or brackish waters where it feeds upon small vertebrates, crustaceans and large insects.

The little blue heron is almost the same size as the snowy egret. The immature bird, both female and male, is pure white for the first year, after which it molts into its adult purplish-maroon plumage. One theory for the white coloration in the first year is that the snowy egret tolerates the white adolescent bird over the blue-colored adult, thereby allowing it to feed in larger and, therefore, safer colonies of similarly sized egrets. When these birds transition from white to blue they are often called calico herons, a mixture of both colors.

The easiest way to distinguish an immature little blue heron from a snowy egret is the absence of the bright yellow “slippers.” Another method is the beak, which is grayish with a dark black tip on the little blue heron and black on the snowy egret. The little blue heron is monogamous and nests with other egrets and herons for protection. It is preyed upon by bobcats, eagles, and alligators.

Tricolored Heron

This medium-size egret is aptly named. The adult tricolored heron has a bluish head, neck and wings, maroon coloring at the base of the neck, and a white belly. In breeding plumage it adds a beautiful white plume trailing off the crown of its head. The tricolored suffered extensive losses during the plume-hunting era. Although the species is recovering, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has kept it listed as a species of special concern.

Formerly called the Louisiana heron, the tricolored heron is known to be among the deepest waders of all the herons, sometimes going into the water all the way to its belly. Similar to the reddish egret, the tricolored is also a “canopy” feeder, making it fascinating to observe. It feeds almost exclusively on minnows.

Shying away from the beaches and only seldom seen inland, this attractive bird can be spotted near mangrove tidal flats. For the most part, the tricolored heron is monogamous and, like all the egrets and herons, tends to nest in large colonies with other wading birds. Its primary threat is habitat loss and poor water quality.

Charles Sobczak is a Sanibel author whose works include the novel “Six Mornings on Sanibel,” and two local guide books, “Living Sanibel A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands” and “The Living Gulf Coast A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida.” His books are available online and at most local bookstores. For more information about Sobczak’s writing, visit indigopress.net. This article is from “The Living Gulf Coast.”