The Little Blue Slow Change Artist

Juvenile Little Blue Heron ~ Laffite’s Cove Nature Center, Galveston Island

It’s taken time, but eventually I came to understand that not every smaller, white wading bird I encountered at the edge of ponds or on the tidal flats was a Snowy Egret. In the first year of its life, the Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) is white, showing no more than dusky blue or gray shadows on the tips of its feathers.

Greenish-yellow legs and feet, together with a bill that tends toward pale gray rather than black also helps with identification. The Sibley guide mentions that many immature Little Blue Herons show a short pointed plume or two on the back of their heads; I may have captured that feature in the first photo.

As the bird matures, it takes on a mottled, or piebald, appearance as white feathers are replaced.

Maturing Little Blue Heron ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Adult birds may seem uniformly dark at a distance, but in fact their feathers present a pleasing combination of maroon and a dark slaty-blue. Their legs remain green; combined with their yellow eyes and a pale blue bill tipped with black at the base, they’re fairly easy to identify.

In the past, I sometimes confused adult Little Blue Herons with Reddish Egrets, despite their color differences; Reddish Egret feathers have been described as cinnamon and steel.

Apart from those color differences, behavior helps to distinguish the birds. The Reddish Egret is a frenetic forager: chasing fish by running back and forth, opening and shutting its wings, and stirring up sediment with its feet. The Little Blue is a sedate stalker: as elegant on the hunt as in moments of rest, and equally beautiful.

An elegant pair at the Brazoria refuge

 

Comments always are welcome.

76 thoughts on “The Little Blue Slow Change Artist

    1. It took a while to get photos of the various stages — not to mention sorting out the juveniles. The biggest ‘Ah, ha!’ moment came when I realized those green legs were attached to green feet. It’s easy to distinguish those from the black legs and ‘golden slippers’ of the Snowy Egret.

    1. Sometimes, it’s worth posting photos that aren’t as sharp and detailed as I’d like, and the second two photos here are in that category. The birds were quite a distance away, but I’d never seen a Little Blue in that intermediate stage, and I’d never seen a pair of adult Little Blues just hanging out. It made me happy to finally have photos of all three stages available for one post.

  1. It’s so inconsiderate of birds to go through phases that make identification difficult. Every bird should sport a name tag:

    HELLO
    My species is…

    The same tag could do double duty and show proof of vaccination.

    1. Wouldn’t name tags be great? As for vaccination, your comment left me wondering if vaccination has been considered as a control for avian flu in the birds themselves. It turns out that it’s at least a concept, and its efficacy has been studied.

      This part of the abstract did seem oddly familiar: “The general consensus on the use of vaccination is that if complying to GMP standards and properly administered, birds will be more resistant to field challenge and will exhibit reduced shedding levels in case of infection. However, viral circulation may still occur in a clinically healthy vaccinated population. This may result in an endemic situation and in the emergence of antigenic variants.”

  2. The little blue heron can be so difficult to identify. We don’t have them on the west coast, so it takes me some time when they’re not in their mature blue morph. This was a great tutorial, Linda, on their subtle differences. This post was a truly a pleasure.

    1. When I first began watching water birds, it took a while to realize that Snowy Egrets and juvenile Little Blues were different birds; learning to distinguish between them took even longer. And I’ll confess that when I first spotted that mottled blue-and-white creature, I assume the mixed colors were caused by a genetic aberration or some sort of disease. I took the photo in 2019; it’s taken this long to figure it out. Still, I did finally ‘get it,’ and I’m glad you — consummate birder that you are! — enjoyed it.

  3. This seems to be one of those species who get better looking with age. Would that people did the same, ha! I love their slate blue coloring, as well as how they look serene and elegant.

    1. That intermediate stage reminds me of the cardinals and bluejays when they molt and get their new feathers. They look so terrible — but once the process is over, they’re bright and shiny again, and even more handsome. I was pleased to find the pair of adults. I’ve never seen that before, and I watched them for a good while. Whether they’re a mated pair I can’t say, but they certainly made for a fine image.

    1. You’re welcome! I’ll bet there were some of these birds around when you visited the Aransas Refuge, even if you didn’t see them. They don’t seem nearly so common as the Great Egrets and the Snowy Egrets.

    1. Thanks, Jean. It’s a shame these don’t make it up to your area, although you do have plenty of other wading birds, like the Great Blue Heron. I love their colors, and the way they shade into one another in the adults.

    1. Many thanks, David. I’ve found that I sometimes do better at ‘learning’ a bird if I can see all of its stages at one time, with distinguishing features (like those green legs and feet) highlighted. Then, I can move on to comparing a species with other birds, like this juvenile with the juvenile Snowy Egrets. Everyone has their own way, I suppose, but once I was confident of these stages, I thought it would make an interesting post.

    1. The Great Egrets are pretty easy, just because they’re the largest, and the Snowy Egrets have those black legs and yellow feet — the so-called “golden slippers.” I’ve spent a lot of time questioning photos of this one, but once I got it through my head to check out the legs, feet, and bill, it got easier. Now, if only I could do as well with the songbirds and sparrows!

    1. Aren’t those gorgeous colors? It was cloudy and dim when I took the photos of the adults, so their feathers didn’t shimmer as they sometimes do, but they still were quite attractive.

    1. I don’t know that I’d call you ‘nuts,’ but it’s a fact that I never see these in ‘civilization,’ as I often do with Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, and so on. Those birds will hunt crawfish, crabs, and such even in highway ditches, but these seem to prefer shallower, marshy areas. I can’t say that I blame them.

    1. Here’s something that amused me. The areas around the eyes that you mentioned — the area between the base of the beak and the eye — are called ‘lores.’ In breeding season, they often become especially bright: pink, green, yellow. When I read your observation about eye shadow, the first thing that came to mind was the L’Oreal brand of cosmetics. Maybe on birds we should call it loreal coloring!

  4. The herons and egrets are such an elegant ilk. I love that “blue heron” blue. Very restrained, tasteful and, yes, elegant. I laughed at a “frenetic” egret — which seems like an oxymoron — but I’d bet they even do “frenetic” elegantly. The herons and egrets are all eye-catchingly beautiful no matter what color they wear.

    1. It took me a couple of years to gather the set of images — or, in the case of the juvenile, to confidently identify what I had. They are gorgeous, and far less common than the Great and Snowy egrets, so it was pure pleasure to come across them: especially that pair of adults.

  5. Fascinating, Linda. And marvelous photos. I’ve only seen Harry and Harry North, both Great Blues. Seeing this little guy was a real treat. And good detective work on your part!

    1. You’re a little too far north for these birds, which is a shame. They’re smaller than your Harrys, but certainly as handsome. One thing you might look for after the breeding season’s over is the development of juvenile Great Blues; for a while, they have the same kind of splotchy feathers, especially on their necks, as the patchy white and blue of this one.

  6. I’ve become very familiar with this bird and its various stages from the Jennings’ blogs and it’s one of my favourites of the birds I’ve learned about! I was really happy to find you’d done a post showing the different stages as they age.

        1. Well, now. One of my best friends grew up in South Carolina, as did her parents and grandparents, and she lives in Charleston. I’m going to be sure to pass the Jennings’ blogs on to her.

    1. It would be interesting to know how long the process of changing from white feathers to blue actually takes. I’ve read that they’re white during their first year of life, but I don’t know if they’re changing during the whole of that year, or whether the process of change begins after a year.

      It would be fun to locate one of these birds and watch it through the whole process. Who knows? One of these adults might have been that juvenile, since the youngster’s photo was taken in 2019.

    1. You know, I never would have connected the adults with my blue jeans, but you’re right; that blue is very close to what’s used for some jeans. I do wonder now how many of these juveniles I’ve seen without realizing it. Not knowing that the faint blue blush is there, it might have been invisible to me.

    1. Just like birders who call all those sparrows and such “little brown birds,” or “LBBs.” Of course, one of the first categories I learned while trying to sort out sunflowers and other members of the Asteraceae was “DYC,” or “darned yellow composite.” Depending on the level of frustration being experienced, another word sometimes substitutes for “darned.”

  7. I’ve come to the conclusion that birds are complicated. A long time ago, on a camping trip in Big Bend, I attended an early morning birding walk (actually, it was a several day commitment) with a wonderful park ranger. I really knew nothing about birds except they fly and many are pretty. One of the points of identification that he emphasized was the shape of birds’ beaks or bills–a sure-fire way to learn what they eat, how they forage and how they differ from one another. The other point he made was yours: birds change as they mature; feathers are different colors and sometimes, in different places.

    Like you, I always assumed that a white, tallish water bird is an egret. While I know that’s not necessary true, your photos certainly demonstrate the how and the why. Great post, great photos!

    1. It took me a while to put together this set and to be sure I had them identified properly. At first, I thought the blue and white juvenile might have been ill, or a genetic freak. I was greatly relieved when I figured out its coloration was just part of the process.

      That’s so true about the importance of the bill for identification. That’s one of the things that helped me figure out I have a pine warbler visiting, and not a goldfinch. Anhingas have a straight bill, while the double-crested cormorant’s has a hook on the end. And on and on it goes.

      You’re right that birds are complicated, but a little patience can pay off — eventually! Some birds are so easy to identify, like the cardinals or robins, that I can tend to get frustrated when trying to sort out several species that look exactly alike to my eye. But I’m beginning to think there’s always something — like the green legs and feet on this heron — that can help point the way to its identity.

    1. The only thing I was concerned about was the possibility that I’d spook the birds before I had some photos. Egrets and herons can be territorial, and I have seen them being aggressive, but only toward others of their species during mating season, or toward interlopers who are invading their territory. They’re not going to act like an ostrich or emu and take on a human!

  8. These are rare around here and as a result I’ve never seen one. That’s a shame because, as your pictures show, they are beautiful birds.One article I read said that they were not hunted for their plumes as many other waders were which is good to hear. Lucky you to have them locally to study and enjoy.

    1. When I looked at the range maps, it does seem that these stop being ‘common’ at about northern New Jersey. I am glad that at least a few wander into your area. Maybe you will get to see one some day. It was interesting to see how many different common names there are for that intermediate stage. ‘Piebald’ seems more common down here, while in the northeast I found ‘calico’ used a good bit. Apparently common descriptions can vary as much as common names.

  9. The Little Blue Herons live here as well, and they are always a treat to see – from that deep light-absorbing blue/gray/maroon to the piebald splotches (I love that color phase) and the ‘small white egret that looks anemic.’ In its adult phase, it blends well in the deep shadows, especially if it’s lurking in mucky areas.

    1. That’s right, and I’m sure that’s one reason I’ve missed a few in my time. On the other hand, they do tend to move more than many of the egrets while pursuing prey: not as ‘flappy’ as the reddish egret, but still active enough to be noticed. Even when they’re walking, they often seem to me to be gliding.

      1. If the Reddish Egret is here, I’ve never seen it, but the Tri-colored Heron does a lovely flapping dance while chasing prey. It’s so comical to watch, and I am often wistful to see an entire ballet with casts of birds and the many personalities – from wispy feathers of the egrets and herons esp in breeding plumage – to the spunky little wrens — ah, so many ideas and so few hours in each day! i need to be out right now – trying to do an accurate bird census, and can you believe (yes you will) there is not one person in this city that I know who could help me? Other friends who live an hour or so away are either gone (to the Sierra) or sick with covid, so I’m doing poco a poco but it needs to be done by the end of the month – covering about 5,000 acres of basically intact forest. and yesterday we had the first rain, so you can imagine how muddy my boots were – but it was raining when i returned home, so I cleaned the boots in the rivers running down the streets!

        1. Who are you doing the survey for? that’s an enormous job — you’re exactly right that the Pachamamas are who you need! I laughed at the thought of you cleaning your boots in the ‘street rivers’ — I’ve done that myself from time to time!

          1. It was that horrid pale gray/blue mud – ha, the color of an anemic Little Blue Heron going to dark phase! It’s for a proposed bicycle park so studies on botany and reptiles/amphibians are also being done .. i told the man – a new friend – that i don’t have an ornithological degree and he said, ‘you know the birds of this area don’t you|?’ yes… end of story! actually it’s probably good that i’m doing this, as last night i wrote in my notes that it’s not what i’m finding but what is not there that is of concern.. seedeaters, tropical kingbirds, euphonias – and all of that points to lack of habitat they need – and yes, verdad – where ARE the cecropria and balsas and other botanicals that those species need – is it lack of seed dispersers – like monkeys and kinkajous and sloths because of fragmented areas? i’m glad to have had free time (everyone is absent at the museo – either with covid or working remotely)
            most of the area is under the umbrella of the university so it’s a beautiful area of those ceibo trees which are bursting into green.. really beautiful dry forest… i’m looking for some land to buy and one owner told me that his family has some, as do neighbors – and so far it’s the lowest price – and the best ‘good vibe’ with all of those ancient-looking ceibos. i want to buy a few hectares of pasture and stat a covid memorial garden in memory of loved ones who have died from covid… plus a bird sanctuary – each gallon of fuel i use, i will plant a tree – and will bully my friends to do the same… and keep buying more hectares as the areas regenerate. two friends want to be a part, so first it’s to find the right place. two weeks ago i thought i’d found it, but this place yesterday was really nice. who knows, maybe there will be two locations to start planting – so many ideas and so little time! (also want to start a nursery – with the trees and plants needed to bring back the species – and then fill the truck with a ‘batch’ and drive through the area and give to landowners – and volunteer to plant them if they’d like… another species absent from a month of birding – no hummingbirds – even in the CBC – few hummingbirds found in 8 groups of people. there’s a lot of work to do – important work before these species vanish forever from this area.

            1. Just remember the advice about hurricane recovery I received from Varnish John after Ike: “Start where you can start, and do what you can do.” It’s easy to waste energy by trying to do too many things at once. That’s a hard, hard lesson that I’ve had to learn along the way: again and again and again and…!

  10. Ay ay ay. I had a bit of a turn, thinking I had identified a much different bird as a little blue heron, then I remembered it was a black crowned night heron. Whew. I don’t think I’ve seen one of these…

    1. The black-crowned night heron’s one of my favorites. When I moved into my new place a year ago, I discovered one was roosting in the live oak by my parking space. I got a few absolutely hilarious photos of it by shooting up into the tree. You might get a chuckle out of them, too.

      1. Those photos are great. What a face, full on! And the one where it’s tucking its head in is really charming. The one I saw most recently was sitting on some rocks, almost underneath a busy walkway on the Georgetown waterfront.

  11. I remember when I first learned that great blue herons sometimes have a white morph. I’m don’t recall if that’s largely just in certain geographies, but it had me looking closer anytime I photographed what I thought was a great egret. You can tell the difference by the coloration of their legs and beak, as you mentioned with the little blue. Of course, I rarely can remember the exact differences and so try to get enough photographs to verify ID from the computer. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen either a little blue heron or a reddish egret, so it’s a treat viewing these photos of the little blues.

    1. I know that those white morphs of the Great Blue Heron show up in Florida; a friend on the east coast of the state has photographed them several times. As I recall, she’s said that they’ll often nest in colonies with Great Whites. I’ve read that young Little Blue Herons still in their white stage will mix in with snowy egrets: perhaps for camouflage.

      I still can find it difficult to distinguish the Little Blues from Reddish Egrets and Tri-Colored Egrets. Behavior’s one key; each species has a more typical way of foraging. I’m hoping for some better photos of the Reddish Egrets. They tend to be very active, so if they’re at all distant, it’s really hard to get a good image.

  12. Superb shots, Linda. Like you, I sometimes confuse Egrets and Herons, but the White-faced Heron is becoming more identifiable as there’s one that frequents the green space behind my apartment building. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a juvenile though. There’s also one white Egret species that are best identified by the S-shape (or not) of its neck.

    Your Little Blue Heron is much more attractive than our Blue Heron in Australia.

    1. I looked at some photos, and it seems that your Blue Heron is more akin to our Great Blue Heron: bigger than this one, and more gray than blue. I don’t think we have anything like your White-faced; it’s great that you have one that roams your neighborhood. Right now, it’s white ibis that are around my place; they’re so pretty, and such fun to watch as they probe the ground for grubs and such. If we get some good rain, there will be even more of them, as the crawfish will be easier to find, and apparently the ibis think a good crawfish is a great dinner.

    1. I’ve never seen one outside the Brazoria Refuge, or the west end of Galveston Island. I think they must prefer shallow standing water; if the water rises in the Brazoria ponds, they disappear, probably farther into the refuge in places we can’t get to. The Great Blue Herons are so common, it’s funny that the Little Blues don’t seem to be.

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