Egret and Heron Identification

picture of a Great Blue Heron

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 stay sightings credited to them. The North American breeding population consists of a dozen species.

Twenty heron, egret and bittern species fill the space under the American Birding Association’s family Ardeidae category.

Eight of those species might have a single or couple of stay sightings credited to them. The North American breeding population consists of a dozen species.

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

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

picture of a Green Heron

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.

picture of a night heron

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.

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

picture of a Reddish Egret at a Florida beach

Often associated with white feathers, the Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens), 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 Snowy Egret

Snowy egrets (Egretta thula). the smaller and typically warmer weather native egrets, fits the general white feather, egret image. A large population lives year round from the equator up to Southern California. At a distance, the black bill serves as a good field mark to differentiate snowy egrets from great egrets.

picture of a Little Blue Heron

The Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea), a 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 (Egretta tricolor) 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.