Heron Identification: Pictures, Video, Tips

Heron identification begins by recognizing the twenty heron, egret and bittern species native to our fresh and salt water areas. Eight of those species might have a single or couple of stray sightings credited to them. The North American breeding population consists of a dozen species.

The video at the top of the page shows a Snowy Egret and highlights a few of the first field ID clues. Many of the species have white wings, and can be further identified by additional physical characteristics such as leg and bill color.

The presence of so many occasional species suggests that Ardeidae species come from tropical and subtropical roots. North American population patterns mimic that overall subtropical trend.

Sometime during the calendar year, all twelve species can be spotted along the Southeast and the Gulf of Mexico.

On average, fewer Ardeidae species inhabit West Coast shorelines and inland watering holes. However in years of heavy northern migration of Mexican populations, eleven of the twelve species can be recorded.

With the exception of the American Bittern and the Least Bittern, North American heron and egret species tend to stand out in their environment.

Easily recognized as the often large, long-billed, long necked wading birds, herons and their relatives inhabit the water’s edges of both coastal and inland locations.

Herons: Pictures and Video Tips Size and habitat makes them popular photography subjects. Their large size means that most can fit in a camera frame without getting close to them and scaring them away.

Heron Identification

picture of a Great Blue Heron, heron identification
Perhaps the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) stands out the most, given its propensity to build a rookery anywhere with a suitable water and food source.

One of two native Ardea species, they stand between three and four feet tall, with a wing span that approaches six feet. With the exception of the Rocky Mountains and Upper Midwest, they can be found at ponds and lakes across the United States.

picture of a Green Heron
The name Green herons might be a bit misleading when considering identification. The picture shows a bird with feathers that lack green color. Smaller than Great blue heron, they live year round in warmer areas along the US coastal regions. During breeding season they migrate to ponds across most of the Eastern United States and a few areas along the Pacific Coast.

picture of a night heron, heron identification
Like the Green Heron, the Black-crowned Night Heron winters along coastal waters in the Southern half of the United States. During breeding season they migrate to most areas of the United States with suitable habitat.


picture of a great Egret
Egrets (Egretta), arguably the genus that launched the modern bird movement, inhabit fresh and salt water environments world wide.

Still going strong after well over one hundred years later, the coalition of scientific and practical birding interests who opposed the wide spread use of egret feathers in the fashion industry in the late nineteenth century, continue advocating for bird interests today.

Eventually Egret populations recovered. According to the American Birding Association, the North American population consists of four native species along with three occasional visitors.

Similar in size and habitat preference to the Great Blue Heron, the Great Egret (Ardea alba) stands apart by dint of its white feathers and a yellow bill.

Traditionally among the hardiest of the West Coast egrets, their populations extend up to the Canadian border.

picture of a Reddish Egret at a Florida beach
Often associated with white feathers, the Reddish Egret limits its United States presence to Gulf Coast and Florida coastal areas. Southern California birders report occasional sightings when members of the Baja California population stray north. The red or rufous head and breast feathers make it an easy Ardeidae species to identify.

picture of a Cattle Egret
Cattle Egrets also fit into the smaller egret group. Size often helps differentiate them from the other white feathered members of the family. During breeding season the hair feathers turn golden, offering up another identification clue. They are mostly a southern species that migrates in Mexico.

picture of a Little Blue Heron
Heron identification gets a bit tricky with the next two species. While they have the common name heron attached to them, they fit into the egret genus. The Little Blue Heron, another primarily southern species, can be easily identified by its black tipped bill. Most of the United States’ population lives along coastal Southeast locations. Occasional strays from a Baja California population make their way to Southern California. Juveniles start with white feathers, and after a year the feathers turn blue.

picture of a Tricolored Heron
At first glance, the Tricolored Heron might be mistaken for the Great Heron. It’s a bit smaller than the Great Heron and the white feathers on the belly along with the stripe along the neck serve as key identification clues. Its range extends into the Atlantic and Gulf Coast coastal areas.