Tricolored Heron

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This was a neat and distinctive bird that I saw while visiting the southeastern United States. Standing at around two feet tall, it is one of the smaller heron species.

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Tricolored herons inhabit fresh and saltwater marshes, estuaries, mangrove swamps, lagoons and river deltas. They can be found from Massachusetts, down through the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, to northern Brazil.

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This is a sleek, slender and distinctly-colored bird colored in blue-gray, lavender and white. The white stripe down the middle of its neck and its white belly set it apart from other dark herons.

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Tricolored Herons forage for small fish such as topminnows and killifishes in open or semi-open brackish wetlands. They are skilled at stalking, chasing and standing-and-waiting to capture small fish.

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Before striking, they draw in their neck and crouch down so low that their belly often touches the water. They also bend forward and push their wings over their head to entice fish to enter the shade provided by their wings.

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Like its relatives, it builds stick nests in trees and shrubs, often in colonies with other wading birds. They typically breed on islands with small trees or shrubs.

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The Tricolored Heron was formerly known as the Louisiana Heron.

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Black-crowned Night Heron

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This is a bird that resides in my home state of Ohio, but I see it more often when on out-of-state travels. I most recently saw one while visiting California. They live in fresh, salt, and brackish wetlands and are the most widespread heron in the world. They can be found in a wide variety of habitats, including marshes, rivers, ponds, mangrove swamps, tidal flats and canals.

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Black-crowned Night Herons are stocky birds compared to many of their long-limbed heron relatives. They usually forage by standing still or walking slowly at edge of shallow water. They hunt mostly from late evening through the night. Though their main diet is fish, they also eat squid, crustaceans, aquatic insects, frogs, snakes, clams, mussels, rodents and carrion.

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Adults have a black crown and back with the remainder of their body white or grey. They have red eyes and short yellow legs. Immature birds (like this one that I saw in Nevada) have dull grey-brown plumage on their heads, wings, and backs, with numerous pale spots. Their underparts are paler and streaked with brown. Young birds have orange eyes and dull yellowish-green legs.

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Black-crowned Night-Herons nest in groups that often include other species, including herons, egrets and ibises. A breeding Black-crowned Night-Heron will brood any chick that is placed in its nest. They apparently don’t distinguish between their own offspring and nestlings from other parents. At the age of four weeks, the young begin to climb about around the nest.

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This species are among the seven types of herons observed to engage in bait fishing; luring or distracting fish by tossing edible or inedible buoyant objects into water within their striking range – a rare example of tool use among birds.

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White Ibis

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While visiting Disney World in November, I saw a fair number of these rather conspicuous birds. They are about two feet tall and have a wingspan of about three feet. They are entirely white, except for their black-edged wings, which may not be noticeable when they are at rest, but is easily seen when the bird is in flight.

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The White Ibis is of the most numerous wading birds in Florida and is common elsewhere in the southeast. It is highly sociable during all seasons, roosting and feeding in flocks and nesting in large colonies. In Florida, over 30,000 have been counted in a single breeding colony.

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This bird forages by walking slowly in shallow water and its sweeping bill from side to side and probing at bottom. It also forages on land, especially on mud or in short grass. Its diet is quite variable, but crayfish and crabs are its major food items. It swallows its prey whole. The parents feed their offspring by regurgitating food from their stomachs.

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The White Ibis lives in a variety of coastal freshwater, saltwater and brackish marshes, rice fields, mudflats, mangrove swamps and lagoons. The birds build their nests in low trees and thickets, from two to 15 feet off the ground. Both male and female cooperate in building the nest, which is usually a platform of sticks, grass or reeds.

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A recent cover story in Audubon magazine indicates that these birds are adaptable and “street smart.” The opportunistic creatures are moving into suburban neighborhoods, looking for (and finding) worms and other food in parks, irrigated lawns of subdivisions and golf courses.

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Green-winged Teal

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While driving to Point Reyes National Seashore, I noticed a group of waterfowl in a waterway, so I decided to check them out.

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This is the smallest dabbling duck in North America. Males have a cinnamon-colored head with a bright green crescent that extends from the eye to the back of the head. In flight, both sexes flash deep-green wing patches.

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The females are light brown, with plumage much like a female Mallard. They lay an average of 8-9 eggs.

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These birds have closely spaced, comblike projections around the inner edge of their bills. They use them to filter tiny invertebrates from the water, allowing the ducks to capture smaller food items than other dabbling ducks.

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The Green-winged Teal is very common and widespread, occurring in marshes, rivers and bays. In the Summer, it can be found in open country near shallow freshwater lakes and marshes.

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Green-winged Teal have an extensive wintering range, having been recorded as far north as Alaska and Newfoundland and as far south as northern South America.

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Canvasback

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I’ve come across this distinctive duck a few times while out and about. This large, big-headed diving bird has a gently sloping forehead and a stout neck.

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Breeding males have a chestnut head and neck set off against a black chest, with a whitish body and black rear. Females are pale brown in the areas where males are chestnut and black and they have a grayish, rather than white body.

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Canvasbacks breed in the Prairie Pothole Region of North America. They prefer to nest over water on permanent prairie marshes surrounded by cattails and bulrushes, which provide protective cover.

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I only see these ducks in Ohio in the Winter. Canvasbacks migrate through the Mississippi Flyway to their wintering grounds in the mid-Atlantic United States, including the Great Lakes Region.

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The Canvasback dives for its food, which consists mainly of the bases and roots of plants growing under water. Wild celery is particularly favored. They also consume mollusks, insects and some small fish.

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With its distinct, angled head and auburn hues, the Canvasback is one of our most striking waterfowl species and a favorite of mine to see in the wild.

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Snowy Egret

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While staying at North Beach, Maryland each day I walked to a tiny nature preserve, where more-often-than-not I would see this elegant bird. During breeding season adults develop long, wispy feathers on their backs, necks and heads.

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The Snowy Egret is one of North America’s most familiar herons, but it was almost hunted to extinction in the late 1800′s, due to their plumes being in demand as decorations for hats.

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It was then protected and its numbers not only have rebounded, but its range seems to be expanding as its population has increased. It can be seen in marshes, swamps, ponds and shorelines in both fresh and salt water.

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This bird is not only known for its immaculate white feathers, but also for its contrasting yellow feet. It uses its feet to stir up food items – mainly fish and crustaceans, but it also eats worms, insects, snails, snakes, small lizards and frogs.

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Like other herons, this two foot tall species nests in colonies, often with other types of wading birds. It was always nice to see this graceful inhabitant of Chesapeake Bay while on my trip.

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Pied-billed Grebe

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While visiting a lake in southern Illinois, I noticed a pair of these water birds that I have occasionally seen in my home state of Ohio.

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This is the most widespread grebe in the New World, and the most familiar in temperate parts of North America. Pied-billed grebes are small, stocky, and short-necked.

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Although it swims like a duck, the Pied-billed Grebe does not have webbed feet. Instead, each toe has lobes extending out on the sides that provide extra surface area for paddling.

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When disturbed or suspicious, it may sink slowly until only head is above water. This bird is rarely seen in flight. It prefers to escape predators by diving and it migrates at night.

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The Pied-billed Grebe emits a series of hollow cuckoo-like notes “cow-cow-cow-cow, cow, cow, cowp, cowp, cowp,” that slows down at the end. They are often heard before they are seen.

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This bird is also known as the American Dabchick, Carolina Grebe, Devil-diver, Dive-dapper, Dipper, Hell-diver and Water Witch.

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Ring-necked Duck

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While visiting central Indiana last month, I saw this sharply marked bird of gleaming black, gray and white. The species is native to North America, but sightings outside of the continent are becoming increasingly common.

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The “ringneck” name is derived from a faint brownish ring around the base of the neck, which is visible only upon close inspection. A more fitting name would be “Ring-billed Duck,” due to the prominent white ring around the bill.

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In migration and during winter, they inhabit ponds, lakes, slow-moving rivers, and occasionally coastal estuaries, but generally do not inhabit saltwater bays.

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The Ring-necked Duck dives for its food in shallow water and has a more generalized diet (consisting mostly of plants) than do other North American diving ducks in its genus.

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This species is a primary means for dispersal of several types of pond plants and help the plants get to newly established ponds. Seeds the birds eat from the plants are undigestable and get deposited (via duck droppings) at new sites.

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This species is strong and fast and, unlike many diving ducks, can take flight directly from the water without a running start.

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Northern Shoveler

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While visiting Carmel, Indiana last month I observed one of the most outwardly distinctive of the dabbling ducks; its elongated, spoon-shaped bill has comb-like projections along its edges, which filter out food from the water.

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The Northern Shoveler inhabits wetlands across much of North America. The males have iridescent green heads, white chests and rusty sides. Females are grayish-brown overall; some of their feathers have light edging with darker centers.

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Their spatulate bills, equipped with small, comb-like structures on the edges, act like sieves, allowing the birds to skim crustaceans and plankton from the water’s surface. Flocks of shovelers often swim with their bills submerged in front of them, straining food from the muddy soup of shallow waters.

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Mud-bottomed marshes rich in invertebrate life is their habitat of choice. Other dabbling ducks use their flat bills to strain food items from the water, but the spoon-shaped bill of the Northern Shoveler is an adaptation that takes this habit to the extreme.

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Aptly nicknamed the spoonbill, the Northern Shoveler has the largest bill of any duck in North America.

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Trumpeter Swan

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While visiting northwest Ohio recently, I observed several of these huge waterfowl. Trumpeter Swans are listed as Threatened in Ohio. In 1996, Ohio became one of a number of states involved in reintroduction plans to restore them to the Midwest.

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These birds were killed for food and skins, first by Indians and then by white men upon arrival on the continent. The plumage trade peaked in the early 1800s and swan populations were dramatically reduced by the mid-1800s. Loss of habitat for this wetland-dependent species resulted in further declines.

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Weighing from 25-35 pounds when fully grown, the Trumpeter Swan is the world’s largest waterfowl. Adults usually measure 4-1/2–5-1/2 feet long. When fully extended, their wingspan can reach nearly eight feet.

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The long neck of the Trumpeter Swan is an adaptation that allows the bird to access food inaccessible to other species of waterfowl. Trumpeter Swans forage on water and, especially in Winter, on land. Their long necks allow them access submergent vegetation without diving.

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Trumpeter Swans inhabit lakes, ponds, large rivers, and coastal bays. They were historically more common in fresh water than salt water, but this is no longer the case.

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They are a long-lived, social species.

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