Tri-colored Heron

by Kyle Sweet, The Sanctuary Golf Club, Florida Master Naturalist

Four Keys to ID

Size and Shape – Medium – sized, delicate and slim heron with a long bill. Its long thin neck curves up to its small head.

Color Pattern – Very colorful heron with a mix of blue-gray, lavender and white. It is the on;ly dark heron with a white belly and if in breeding plumage, will also have white plumes extending from the back of the head.

Behavior – Forages alone or at the edge of groups of mixed wading birds. Flies with head drawn in and feet trailing behind.

Habitat – Coastal areas, calm lagoons, freshwater marshes, canals and ditches.

The slender Tri-colored Heron, formerly known as the Louisiana Heron, is a common wading bird throughout the southeast United States and the islands of Sanibel and Captiva. Its range is all along the coastline from Texas to North Carolina, where it can be found in quiet, shallow watered coastal lagoons.

It forages in shallow water in a number of ways. It often stands still, waiting for prey to approach but will also walk slowly, stirring up prey in the sediment beneath its feet. In addition to these behaviors it will also chase after prey and like the Reddish egret will raise its wings over their head to entice fish to enter the shade provided by their wings. Before striking their prey, especially if waiting in the still position, they draw in their neck and crouch down low enough to get their belly wet. Tri-colored herons have been observed to go into much deeper water than other herons in pursuit of prey.

The diet of the Tri-colored heron consists mainly of fish. Beyond fish they feed on crustaceans, insects, tadpoles, frogs and lizards.

Tri – colored herons can be enjoyed year-round in Southwest Florida but birds in its northern range, North Carolina, will migrate south and have been documented in Cuba and Panama.

They nest with other herons and egrets, typically on islands or high ground with dense vegetation. Males pick the nesting site and bring nesting material to the female, who arranges them into a nest resembling a bulky platform. Often, the nest is very difficult to identify due to its flat, bulky stemmed design.
Currently, Tri-colored Herons are a species of low concern nationally, but in Florida ad more specifically the Everglades, a significant reduction in breeding pairs has been documented. Due to this, in 2015, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission listed the Tri-colored Heron as threatened. Reduced flows of fresh water in the everglades are through to be the culprit to their current decline in Florida.

Breeding season is quickly approaching for these monogamous birds. In past years, we have had several nesting pairs along the edges of the golf course and in dense vegetation on our course lakebanks. Nests are often positioned on branches that overhang the water and typically 10-20 above the surface of either the water or ground. These colorful herons are a favorite of photographers whether they are chasing lunch or atop a nest with chicks. This uniquely colored, graceful heron is a favorite of mine and hopefully one that you’ll get a good look at soon on the islands.

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