A Blue Bird that Brought Happiness

When I spotted a bit of bright blue along the edge of a Brazoria County mudflat, newly filled with water from recent rains, my first thought was, “I wish people would stop dumping their trash.” Then I glanced back, and realized that the bit of blue wasn’t plastic; it was joined to eyes, a body, and legs.

I’d never seen anything like it and, to be quite honest, I’m not sure I could have imagined it. But there it was: a tricolored heron (Egretta tricolor) in full breeding plumage. For most of the year, it’s feathers are a subtle mix of blue-gray, lavender, maroon, and white, but in breeding season, it develops a bright blue bill with a black tip, cobalt blue lores (the area surrounding the eye), bright red eyes, and white head plumes. Most descriptions mention pink legs as well; these don’t seem particularly pink, but the color transformations might not have been complete.

For a few minutes it remained partly visible, stalking its way down the flat amid the grasses. I suspect some lady tricolored heron already has joined me  in noticing and appreciating its fine appearance.


Comments always are welcome.

89 thoughts on “A Blue Bird that Brought Happiness

    1. I know. When I was messing around with titles, I almost went with a Blue Bayou theme, but the bird wasn’t at a bayou, so the bluebird of happiness had to do.

    1. I almost missed it. We’ve had so much rain that the birds weren’t at their usual ponds and sloughs; the water was too deep for the waders. They all were well off the road, hidden away in the grasses. This was the proverbial lucky shot.

    1. The vividness of those colors certainly was striking. I rarely see these herons, and I’ve always found them wearing their ordinary colors. I had no idea we had something like this wandering our marshes!

  1. Excellent shot! Wow, I’ve seen a lot of Great Blue Herons, but never anything like this, he’s great! You can tell he’s not just holding his breath until his beak turns blue, he looks pretty pleased, as he should. I’m sure you’re right and he’s attracted a girlfriend, “Nothing but blue skies/Do I see” ahead.

    1. Most of the herons and egrets seem to add a few feathers or a bit of facial color for breeding season, but this one takes it up a notch. I don’t know why the common name was changed, but this one used to be called the Louisiana Heron. It certainly looks like it’s ready for Mardi Gras!

    1. I don’t see them often, and I still can confuse them with the reddish egret or the little blue heron. This page shows the bird at different stages. There’s one that’s often spotted at the freshwater pond at LaFitte’s Cove on Galveston Island.

    1. That it is. The only other markedly blue bird I see around here is the Indigo Bunting; they show up during migration, but only for a day or two. Still, they’re marked by a bit of that same electric blue; it certainly is eye-catching.

  2. It is indeed spectacular. I have never been in an area where Tricoloured Herons are present, other than in the non-breeding season, so I have never seen this stunning nuptial plumage. I am sure that had you been a lady heron you would have sidled right up to him!

    1. I’m so accustomed to thinking of added plumes or smaller, colored lores as breeding plumage that it never occured to me there might be even more dramatic examples of the changes birds experience. It was a thrill to come across this one; I still can’t quite get over it. At least now I know that the white belly is one way to help distinguish this one from other herons; any little bit helps!

  3. Oh boy oh boy. Finding a tri-colored heron is something you folks in the southern U.S. have over the rest of the nation. I think this is one of our most beautiful herons. Top it with the breeding phase and what a stunner. How absolutely thrilling that you came upon this beauty, Linda. And so great that it wasn’t trash. This photo is excellent, thanks for sharing your special experience.

    1. I’ve read that Audubon called this one “The Lady of the Waters,” and the name suits. Small and svelte, both the male and female are beautiful birds, but when I saw this one? I had no idea what it was, but I was certain it wouldn’t be hard to identify! I’m sure now that I have a photo or two or a juvenile, too, taken at a pond not far from where I found this bird. Perhaps this bird is that one, all grown up!

  4. Breeding plumage is amazing–I have seen what it does to enhance the appearance of Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets, but have never seen a Tri-colored Heron, much less one with such fantastic colors. What a cool experience having the chance to see this one. I love the bright blue patch of color and the jaunty white plumes at the back of his head.

    1. I often see those white breeding plumes on the heads of black-crowned and yellow-crowned night herons; together with the long, lacy plumes called aigrettes that the herons and egrets display, they make for quite a sight, even absent the dramatic color that this bird displays. I’m a little surprised that I’ve never seen this bird in its breeding colors before, but that’s just a reminder that there’s always another surprise waiting in the natural world.

      1. I think that it is the anticipation of new surprises that motivates us to go out into nature again and again, confident that each experience will be different and wonderful.

    1. To be honest, I felt as though I was confronting something akin to Photoshop magic when I came across this character. After I got home, my first move was to get online and search for similar photos, just to be sure of what I’d seen. Sure enough, there were photos of similarly colored Tri-Colors, including some on reputable sites like Audubon and Cornell. If I ever see another one, I’ll know what it is!

  5. Wow! He’s certainly all gussied-up for a night on the town, isn’t he? Great capture, Linda — I’ve never seen one of these, so I applaud you for opening my eyes!

    1. I’m glad to share him with you, Debbie — especially since I’d never seen such a sight, either. It was quite something to see a bird that generally wears muted colors suddenly emerge with that in-your-face blue!

    1. Isn’t he, though? Those bright colors make him look as though he belongs in a tropical setting. It’s easy to become accustomed to cardinals and gold finches, but color like this was a real surprise.

  6. I don’t see blue herons here on a regular basis, so I appreciate seeing the beautiful mating colors they produce! Thanks, Linda.

    1. All of the herons have their ways of attracting a mate: fancy feathers, intricate ‘dances,’ and so on. But this is the most dramatic example I’ve ever seen of color change. I may never see it again, but at least I’ve seen it once!

  7. Ouu one of my very favourites Audubon’s Lady of the Waters!! The Louisiana Heron does have the most glorious color changes when in breeding dress!! The bill can seem really fluorescent in the purples and blues and the ruby eyes are just so beautiful…add to that the coppery aigrettes and crest plumes…just gorgeous. On my one trip to the local rookery this year there were two or three nests with this species egg sitting, but I imagine they are hatched and practically fledged by now. Your example is a really fine one. I admire your tenacity to venture out in the heat, I’ve been reluctant.

    1. Believe me, Judy — when I came across this fellow, I thought of you, and Phil Lanoue, as well. The phrase “I couldn’t believe my eyes” comes to mind. I roamed some archives to see if this was a common occurrence or an aberration. I found a post on Phil’s site titled ‘Starting to Get Colorful,’ and it included this line: “They may be getting into breeding condition soon as some are looking rather colorful. Once their bill turns a royal blue we will know for sure.” Now I know what he was talking about!

      I learned about a couple of rookeries quite close to me this year, but everyone who’s posted photos from them has been using 400-600mm lenses, so I didn’t bother going. No matter! This is evidence that even my little 70-300 can capture some wonderful sights. I do wish I’d been a little closer, but I suspected that if I tried, I would have been left with a pile of grass and no bird.

      1. Oh yes the color changes are due to bird hormones during the breeding season. I can remember thinking I was looking at different birds due to the wild changes. Snowy egrets go from a yellow lore to crimson red ones and White egrets from a yellow lore to bright green, leg and foot colors change , plumes appear…..just amazing really. You did get a super image of the Tricolor in its glory.

        On telephoto strength if you have a small sensor camera 300mm acts like 480mm, but the 600mm guys might be using a small sensor too and so your point is taken on distance. Mine is 300mm too and I just use the 7D if I want closer. Luckily I have places where the birds are closer many times.

        1. Well, now I know that it was a Snowy egret I saw last year; I had as hard a time believing the red lores as I did wrapping my mind around this blue bird. I wouldn’t have thought you were using a 300mm, but on the other hand, I know that you are able to get much closer to some of the birds, especially in the rookeries. I’m a terrible judge of distance, but I knew the Tricolor was almost out of my good range, so I was happy with the result.

          1. You and me on judging distance.Not my strong suit either. When I am out I try and work within the range of my particular gear as well. When you can get close enough to fill the viewfinder with your bird, that is really nice for great detail. My cameras while aging a bit now still make big files. So if you really get sharp focus on your subject in a nice setting and light, then sometimes you can do a nice crop with still decent detail depending on what you are going do with the image…print or web view etc.

            So you might be surprised sometimes. Though I too will skip taking a picture if I deem it just too far to be worth it.

            Here’s a post I did about the snowy egret mating colors. In it you can see the yellow changing to red on lore and feet plus the aigrettes and head plumes. All of those images are crops at 300mm with the 7D. Not sure my distance exactly though.

            it is nice when walking along too when a nice bird just drops in close to you…that’s like a gift when it happens.

            1. I fixed up the link. I think that happens if you’re using the block editor rather than the classic editor; that’s my presumption, anyway. I really don’t like it, even when I’m reading other people’s blogs. It seems intrusive, as though WP is trying to somehow whomp up their presence.

              I will settle for blurry or too far away images for documentary purposes. I tuck them in my files, and then if I come across something like a flower that seems too early or too late, I can go back and see when they appeared in previous years. Or, I can wonder, “When did that Indigo Bunting show up,” and go back and find it. A photo of an Indigo Bunting in shade, beneath bushes, isn’t worth publishing, ut it’s still fun to have.

            2. Oh thanks! I’ve been a bit inactive and so may not be as aware of WP changes. I stick with the way I always do it usually but who knows? Computers have a mind of their own. Oh well scary thought I’ve been watching too many shows like Code Bias and Social Dilemma.

  8. What you thought was trash turned out to be a bird. Just this morning a commenter mentioned an incident that went the other way. He’d been out in nature and spotted a bright green frog. He began to photograph the frog from a distance, then gradually moved closer, still taking pictures, till eventually he got close enough to realize he’d been photographing a rubber frog that someone had left hanging from a tree.

    Some of your readers may not get the title’s reference.

    1. The sheer quirkiness of a rubber frog hanging from a tree made me laugh; that’s a rare species of tree frog, indeed. I suppose there are people who’d think The Bluebird of Happiness is a little quirky, too, but I still enjoy the song. I remember it from my dad’s record collection; I’m sure it was on a 78 rpm.

      I vaguely remember the ‘bluebird of happiness’ being involved in funny sayings when I was a kid. All I remember is “May the bluebird of happiness fly up your nose.” Apparently that was a takeoff from an entirely different Jimmy Dickens song that I’d managed to forget.

    1. The Tricolored Heron is a coastal bird; this range map shows why you haven’t seen it. I did find some reports of vagrants in your area, but very few. They’re not endangered, but they’re not as easy to spot as the Great Blue Herons or Great Egrets — unless they’re all dressed up for the girls!

  9. Yowsa! That’s quite a bird of a different color. I am partial to the herons and egrets. Such elegant birds! This one is especially dapper, all gussied up to go a’courtin’.

    1. Yowsa, indeed! You’re right that they’re elegant, and more or less graceful, but I certainly never had associated one with such vivid colors. Even our green heron isn’t green in the same way that this one is blue — but then, I may not have seen the green heron in breeding colors.

      The only other bird I can recall with such distinctive blue is the Blue-footed Booby. Granted, the blue’s a different shade, and it shows up on their feet rather than their beaks, but it’s another great attention-getter.

    1. Once a year, for a very few days during the spring migration, I see Indigo Buntings, but that’s the only blue I see that comes close to this one’s color. Bluebirds and Bluejays are lovely, but they don’t have the ‘electric edge’ of this color. When I first glimpsed him, I had no idea what I was looking at, but I knew I had to stop and watch.

      1. I think these kind of spectacular encounters, in which we don’t yet know what it is what we are looking at, will not be forgotten and always hold a special place in our memories.

    1. Let’s not tell Harry about this one. He might develop a complex — or start demanding new feathers from the pond-walkers! I’m sure someone has studied why some birds change their appearance so dramatically in mating season, but I’m willing just to enjoy the sight.

  10. Great shot! He’s a cutie, if something so gangly can be called cute. I’ve had green herons and great herons visit my pond, though not in a few years, but never a tricolor. He/she is so much better than trash!

    1. From what I’ve read, the Tricolors stick pretty close to the coast. They’re spotted inland from time to time, but rarely. They’re much more active hunters than many herons or egrets; I’ve seen them actively stalk their prey, striding across a pond with their beaks nearly at water level. Now that I’m getting a sense of where they can be found, I may be able to see others this year — although this has to be the sighting of the year!

    1. It’s not as sharply focused as I’d like, but I’m learning to trust my instincts and rely more often on ‘shoot first, identify later’ as a pretty good motto. If I’d stopped to try and figure out what I was looking at, I probably would have missed the photo.

  11. What a handsome dude! I don’t think an image of this species could be any more appealing and I am sure some lovely female appreciated meeting him.

    Your mention of Sharp Dressed Man brought to mind this other Texas tune that I discovered for the first time the other day. It has now become an earworm, happily so, and also introduced me to my new favorite steel guitar artist

    1. I’m not sure why flamingos have become the yard ornament of choice in certain neighborhoods. Flamingos are very nice, but I’d much rather have one of these gussied up herons in my yard.

      I can’t believe you’ve not come across that tune before, or Cindy Cashdollar. This is my favorite version. It’s off the Live at Billy Bob’s [Fort Worth] CD, and every cut is a good one. It’s also one of my favorite driving songs. Another great one is “Boogie Back to Texas. It fits perfectly with two lane roads, 70 mph, and a cold Dr. Pepper.

      1. Pink flamingo yard decorations, I think, are kitsch items that people think of as fun. I can guarantee that you will never see one in my yard. Now a heron or egret of any species is a different matter and a tri-colored heron would be the bomb. I wonder if there is such an item out there.

        Once I watched “miles and miles” i followed up with several including “Boogie”. Ray has a great voice, plays a good guitar, and knows how to entertain. I read that he survived Covid too. I was also really impressed with Cindy Cashdollar, who I guess was a temporary member but I really like her steel guitar playing. She seemed to really enjoy what everyone else was doing which is something you don’t see in every musician. I had heard Asleep at the Wheel over the years but never delved into the group before. I am a fan now. Texas swing! Your style of trip sounds awfully good.

        1. When plastic flamingos show up in yards down here, the purpose clearly is kitsch. One of the most amusing examples took place a couple of years ago, when they began arriving, one or two at a time, on the lawn of one of our yacht clubs. It had to be club members doing it, but no one seemed to know exactly who it was. The yard crew kept removing them for a while, but they came back in force, until there was an entire flock. The photo I didn’t get but wish I had involved a flock of live white ibis mixing in with the artificial flamingos.

          As for those trips, I’ve found the best back roads to both Brazoria and east Texas. Once past the towns, it’s open roads, and pure pleasure.

          1. Something similar but different regarding secret displays. When I was in the Boy Scouts and at summer camp, a group of leaders would go out at night while the scouts were sleeping and create enormous rope spider webs over an entire campsite. It was so cool and no one ever admitted to doing it. Every night it was a different campsite. No real spiders mixed in like your ibises.

    1. That made me laugh, Dina. Discovering a fine, blue bird in place of what I’d assumed was — well, something — was a good reminder not to make quick assumptions and move on. I would have hated to miss this one.

    1. I’m so bad at estimating distances. I was on a road, and next to the road was a ditch and a mudflat: probably 30′ across. Then, there was a strip of land filled with various kinds of plant life: perhaps another 30′. Then, finally, there was the watery area the heron’s standing in, with taller grasses. So, I might have been about 60′ distant from Mr. Heron, give or take. I had the lens extended to 275mm, since the clarity seems to be best with it if I don’t try for 300mm — probably because of camera shake.

    1. Since they only dress up for breeding season, that makes sense. I rarely see them, myself. There are a couple of spots where they apparently like to hang out, but their schedule and mine don’t often coincide!

    1. Extraordinary, it is. Photos like this can’t be scheduled, like a portrait at a studio, and it’s no different on your patio. All we can do is watch and wait for whatever’s going to fly in next! Sometimes it doesn’t work, of course. Last weekend I completely missed a fabulous sequence — a mockingbird was harassing a Crested Caracara that was sitting on a limb atop a dead tree. When I spotted them, I was driving, and by the time I stopped, tried for a photo, realized I had entirely wrong settings, and tried to adjust — it was over. Sigh. But at least now I know a mockingbird will take on another bird more than ten times its size!

      1. I tend to leave my long ‘birding’ telephoto lens on the highest ISO I can (800) which ensures minimal noise and the potential to get a faster shutter speed. But my smaller Sony camera gets used for all sorts of subjects so may not be on the best settings for bird photography on my balcony. Either way, at the moment, I don’t set them (Canon & Sony) up on my desk ready for quick sightings now it’s winter and mostly raining. I saw a fairy-wren walking around my rosemary plant only yesterday, but by the time I got the Sony camera out of its soft pouch and checked the settings, the bird had flown.

        1. It’s a fact that one advantage of plants is that they stay put. Granted, there can be wind to deal with, or flukey light, but at least they’re not here one second and gone the next!

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