To refresh your memory, here is the photo from June’s Bird Quiz. It was taken in Puerto Rico during the month of May, but you can also see these all along the Gulf coast. Don’t read any further if you want one last chance to identify this bird.
Don’t feel bad if you had a hard time with this. I did too. In fact, I kept changing my mind!
Let’s start with the obvious. We have a large bird, walking through shallow water, obviously hunting for lunch. The imposing beak suggests that fish are on the menu.
It has a long, red, curvy neck and long stick-like legs. You can’t tell from the photo, but the bird was holding perfectly still. The beak is light silver-blue closer to the face, and black at the tip. The dark body is bluish. Hopefully we all agree so far.
There are a number of larger birds with long legs. Cranes, storks and herons (including egrets) come immediately to mind. But only herons have that S-shaped neck that can retract, then suddenly propel the head and beak forward to nab an unsuspecting fish or crustacean. In addition, there are no cranes in Puerto Rico, especially in May. (Here’s a Sandhill Crane. See? They look nothing alike!)
From the comments, deciding this is a heron is pretty straightforward. Now comes the fun. Which heron?
Given the color of the plumage, we can quickly narrow this bird down to either a Reddish Egret or a Little Blue Heron. The third choice—a Tricolored Heron—has an easily seen white belly, which this bird lacks. To make things easier, from now on I’m going to abbreviate Reddish Egret to RE and Little Blue Heron to LBH.
Here is where I have a bit of an advantage. I remember how big the bird was. REs are about 30 inches long, with a 46-inch wingspan, while LBHs are only 24 inches long, with a 40-inch wingspan. That’s different enough that it’s relatively easy to tell them apart—if both species are present. However, you didn’t have that clue, so let’s ignore it for now.
This bird has some other distinguishing field marks that help us make a decision. It has a reddish neck. The beak color changes abruptly from black to silver-blue. It has white around the eyes and where the beak joins the head. And, as we’ve said, the body is dark gray-blue. Here’s another photo of the same bird.
This is when it helps to have more than one field guide. My Puerto Rico bird book shows the LBH with a bill just like this one, where a light color abruptly changes to black half way to the tip. But the illustration is in black-and-white. That’s not very helpful.
Both National Geographic’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America and The Sibley Guide to Birds show the RE with the distinctive bicolor bill. But their drawing of a breeding bird’s bill shows the light part as golden yellow, while the non-breeding adult has an all-over silver beak (no black). The LBH’s beak is half silver and half black, with a more gradual color change. Hmmm.
The LBH in Sibley’s guide is all blue, all over, including the neck (although there are faint red undertones). National Geographic shows a breeding LBH with a reddish neck.
LBHs have dark blue-gray bodies. REs can have lighter bodies, but there’s a dark morph just to muddle things even more.
How about the legs? Our bird appears to have dark legs, but they’re wet. The tops (which are presumably dry) are much lighter. Sibley shows the LBH as having pale yellow-green legs, while the RE has darker blue legs. None really match our bird.
So, our bird has a reddish neck like a RE. It has a sharply defined two-tone bill like a RE, except the top half is blue, like a LBH. Its body is dark like a LBH (and some REs). And it’s legs are light gray, like neither. Argh!
When in doubt, ask the experts. I looked up each bird on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. They have photographs as well as drawings, and one of the images was a good match for our bird. After waffling back and forth for weeks, I was finally able to conclude that this is a Little Blue Heron.
Here’s a couple photos of a Reddish Egret for comparison. (Note the peachy beak and lighter gray body.) When hunting, they often “dance” across the water flapping their wings, as the top bird is doing.