White-faced Heron

White-faced heron in typical hunting position with neck held back in pre-striking position.

White-faced heron in typical hunting position with neck held back in pre-striking position.

The White-faced Heron Egretta novaehollandiae is a common bird around the Goulburn district, and most of Australia for that matter. At least one is to be expected in the wetlands throughout the year and several at a time, including fledged young, will visit when food is easily and prolifically available.

The white-faced heron has in the past been called the Blue Crane (and still is sometimes). It’s overall soft grey colour might well be named blue (inasmuch as a red-haired person is blue or that grey looks bluer than green from a distance), but white-faced herons are definitely not cranes. Herons — together with egrets, night-herons and bitterns — belong to their own family, the Ardeidae. Cranes — which in Australia include only the Brolga and the almost identical Sarus Crane — belong to a separate and unrelated family, the Gruidae. They just happen to look a little alike (long beaks, long necks, long legs … pretty much end of story).

They are even less fussy than white-necked herons in their feeding and habitat preferences. They feed mainly on small fish, tadpoles, frogs, lizards, baby turtles, water insects and other small pond creatures, but they will sometimes also feed from the remains of dead animals. They will also eat plants at times.

 

A white-faced heron in nuptial plumage using the berms at the Goulburn Wetlands.

A white-faced heron in nuptial plumage using the berms at the Goulburn Wetlands.

 

White-faced herons all have white faces, as one might suspect. They are otherwise grey with yellow legs. Adult birds also have white extending down the front of their necks. Males and females look just the same as each other (they are monomorphic). Breeding birds are like egrets (they are actually in the same genus, see notes under the Great Egret about this) in that they wear nuptial plumage. Nuptial refers to weddings in humans and especially to the early stages of courtship between two birds. Their nuptial plumes include longer than normal feathers on the head, neck and back, as well as pink/brown or bronze feathers above their breast. Like all egrets and herons they have an s-shaped neck with a modified sixth vertebra that allows them to both fold their neck and to use it like a sprung trap to catch their prey with one lightning fast stab.

White-faced herons prefer to feed alone and will defend feeding territories against other birds of their species. They will, however, become more sociable during the breeding season and will always tolerate or ignore the presence of other water birds around them. Even when breeding they seem uncomfortable in the company of their own species and, in the feeding ponds, will often squabble with each other.

A mated poair of white-faced herons at the Goulburn Wetlands. This pair was seen to include and feed a fledged young.

A mated pair of white-faced herons at the Goulburn Wetlands. This pair was seen to tolerate the presence of and feed a fully-fledged young.

White-faced herons will not only sit and wait for prey, or slowly stalk them, they will also stir up mud with their feet and wait to see what they've disturbed.

White-faced herons will not only sit and wait for prey, or slowly stalk them, they will also stir up mud with their feet and wait to see what animals they’ve disturbed.

 

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