Tommy J. DeBardeleben

Bitterns, Herons, and Ibises of Maricopa County


American Bittern Botaurus lentiginosus

The American Bittern is painfully shy.  Instead of taking flight when alarmed, this secretive bird stands motionless and points it's bill straight up.  Birders might walk right by it and think it's a piece of wood sticking out of the marsh.  The American Bittern's coloration help this quiet wader blend in with it's surroundings easily, as it is never easy to spot unless in the open, which it rarely does.  The American Bittern has a widespread range throughout much of North America, where it's habitat is found in dense fresh and saltwater marshes.  In the marshes this bird walks slowly or stands motionless, preying on fish, insects, frogs, and sometimes small mammals and birds.  In Arizona, the American Bittern is an uncommon migrant and winter resident.  It is very difficult to find, and takes a lot of luck to spy in the dense marshes with tall reeds and cattails.  In Maricopa County, the American Bittern may pass through in both migrations, and is present in winter but hard to find in wetlands with tall reeds.  Suggestive places to look for American Bitterns in Maricopa County where there is good habitat includes:  Area 2 (anywhere along the Salt River where one finds tall reeds and cattails along the river), Area 4 (Gilbert Water Ranch, Veteran's Oasis Park), Area 7 (Tres Rios Wetlands-Hayfield and Overflow, Baseline and Meridian Widlife Area), and Area 8 (Arlington Wildlife Area).


Least Bittern Ixobrychus exilis

The tiny Least Bittern is the smallest heron in North America.  Like the American Bittern, the Least Bittern is extremely shy and hides in dense marshes.  When approached close, this bittern stands motionless and freezes just like the American Bittern does.  The Least Bittern however, is able to climb up high in the reeds and perch easily, due to it's small size.  It is seen elevated when on reeds just as much as it's seen when foraging closer to the ground.  It's diet consists of small fish, frogs, insects, and small mammals and birds, as it finds it's habitat in dense fresh and salt water marshes.  Least Bitterns are observed more often than American Bitterns, as they take flight more often and call more throughout the day.  A majority of Least Bitterns do go unnoticed as well, as they are very elusive and hard to find and spot.  The range of the Least Bittern is widespread in the east, and limited to the southwest in the west.  In Arizona, the Least Bittern is found in the western (along the Lower Colorado River) and southwestern and some central parts of the state, in dense marshes.  Maricopa County is a very good area to view this species, which is found year round.  Search dense marshes in the county, and also listen for a harsh and rail-like "kek-kek-kek" call that is given by the Least Bittern throughout the day.  Most cases of heard birds will result in a heard only as the concluding result.  Good places for Least Bittern in Maricopa County are:  Area 2 (Granite Reef Recreation Site (east side), Phon D. Sutton Recreation Site, and other Salt River sites with high marsh habitat), Area 7 (Tres Rios Wetlands-Hayfield and Overflow, Baseline and Meridian Wildlife Area) and Area 8 (Arlington Wildife Area).  Least Bitterns show up at other marshes in the county often, but these are the most reliable and best locations to view them.


Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias

The Great Blue Heron is the largest heron in North America, as well as the most common and widespread heron in North America.  This heron is found in all habitats associated with water, with a variety of different surrounding habitats and elevations.  It is most often seen slowly hunting in shallow water, where it preys on fish, frogs, birds, and insects.  The Great Blue Heron is always distinctive, whether on the ground or in flight.  The majority of the population in North America are permanent residents, but birds who nest in northern climates do migrate south to warmer climates.  In Maricopa, the Great Blue Heron is found wherever there are bodies of water, which include lakes, rivers, marshes, ponds, and canals.  It is used to people in a lot of areas, and resides also in ponds and lakes made in midst of busy housing developments.  Impressive Great Blue Heron nesting colonies, or rookeries can be found in Maricopa County in certain places in large cottonwood trees.  Locations with impressive colonies include:  Area 2 (Pebble Beach Recreation Site) and Area 7 (Tres Rios Overflow Wetlands).


Great Egret Ardea alba

This large white heron is similar in shape and flight appearance to the Great Blue Heron, but is smaller.  It's behavior and feeding habits are also similar to the Great Blue Heron.  The Great Egret prefers marshes, lakes, and ponds, where it feeds in shallow water searching for fish and amphibians.  It also hunts along the edges of lakes and ponds.  The Great Egret is also commonly found in agricultural fields, where it feeds on small mammals and insects.  This bird often feeds and roosts in groups, where a large group of egrets may spend the night in a large tree together.  It is also found often in mixed flocks of other herons and waterbirds.  Great Egrets have a fairly widespread range in North America, as a breeder, migrant, and resident.  This bird is found year round easily in Maricopa County in areas with large ponds and marshes, as well as agricultural fields.  Migration periods may result in impressive and much larger numbers than usual.


Snowy Egret Egretta thula

The beautiful Snowy Egret is present in North America throughout much of the Lower 48 as a resident, breeder and migrant.  This medium-sized and rather small heron is very active, constantly foraging and running after it's food source, which includes fish, insects, and amphibians.  The Snowy Egret is a very social bird, forming huge flocks with it's own species as well as other different heron species.  Snowy Egrets were at one time almost hunted to extinction, as many ignorant people killed them for their feathers for fashion purposes.  The trend was luckily stopped and the Snowy Egret was protected before the species likely would likely have been wiped out, and the Snowy Egret has a very healthy and increasing population today.  In Maricopa County, Snowy Egrets are common year round and are found at lake edges, ponds, marshes, rivers, and agricultural fields throughout the area.


Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis

The well named Cattle Egret is most often found in farmfields with cattle, where they often feed on insects that land on the cattle.  This egret is sometimes seen feeding on cows, where it helps itself and the cow, as the two sources are kept happy.  More often, insects kicked up by the cattle is what keeps this egret happy, as it follows cattle herds.  Cattle Egrets also eat reptiles and amphibians and are also in found fields, open areas, and ponds away from cattle.  This egret is small and distinctive in appearance, and is the only small egret in North America with a yellow bill and yellow legs.  The Cattle Egret is also found on other continents throughout the world, and it found it's way to North America where it's population has increased to a fairly widespread range.  This species is found in Maricopa County on a year round basis, especially when driving through habitats of open fields, such as agricultural fields.  Driving in these fields will most often reward birders with a Cattle Egret sighting, as this species is very fun to observe.


Green Heron Butorides virescens

This small and colorful heron is commonly seen sitting motionless at the edge of a pond.  It waits for it's food source to come close and then quickly snatches it's prey, which consists of fish and insects.  The Green Heron is common in it's North American range (Lower 48), where it is widespread in the east and more limited but still common in the west.  Arizona is a good place in the west to see this species throughout much of the state.  In Maricopa County, the Green Heron is very common year round in most areas with ponds, rivers, marshes, and often canals.  Gilbert Water Ranch (Area 4) is an excellent place along with many other locations in the county to view and photograph Green Herons.


Black-crowned Night-Heron Nycticorax nycticorax

The Black-crowned Night-Heron is highly nocturnal, being highly active at night.  It is often active in early morning and late evening also, and some birds are active during daylight hours.  Roosting Black-crowned Night-Herons are easy to find during the day.  This bird has a highly varied diet, and eats anything from fish and plants to young birds.  The Black-crowned Night-Heron is found throughout much of North America (mainly Lower 48), and is found in freshwater and saltwater marshes, ponds, and along rivers and lakes.  This heron is a common year round resident in Maricopa County in locations with ponds, rivers and marshes.  It is also found in midst of residential areas that have ponds and lakes designed in the developments.  Black-crowned Night-Herons are usually found with ease in these habitats, espically when roosting in trees during the day.  Gilbert Water Ranch (Area 4) is one of the better locations to view this species, where birds roost and forage in high numbers.


White-faced Ibis Plegadis chihi

This beautiful bird is found in Maricopa County in good numbers throughout much of the year, except when it spends it's time north of Arizona during the breeding season.  The White-faced Ibis is found throughout much of western North America, where freshwater marshes are it's favored breeding habitat.  This species is very gregarious and gather in large flocks at all times of the year.  The White-faced Ibis's diet consists highly of invertebrates, and also fish.  In Maricopa County during both spring and fall seasons, as well as all of winter, the White-faced Ibis is locally common in marshes, ponds, and flooded agricultural fields.  Good places to observe this species in Maricopa County include:  Area 4 (Gilbert Water Ranch, Higley Road Ponds, Veterans Oasis Park), Area 7 (Glendale Recharge Ponds, Tres Rios Wetlands, M-C 85 in flooded fields), and any flooded agricultural field in Area 8.  The flooded fields in Areas 7 and 8 offer the best chances of finding huge flocks of White-faced Ibis.  The rare in Arizona Glossy Ibis has been found more often in recent years throughout Arizona in midst of White-faced Ibis flocks, be sure to keep an eye out for that bird.


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