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Little Blue Heron in its White Phase is Often Confused with Other Herons & Egrets

Jun 26, 2017 03:26PM ● Published by Kevin

The slate blue feathers of the adult fill in gradually on the juvenile little blue heron. Photo by William R. Cox.

Photo by William R. Cox.

There are 60 to 65 species of herons recognized worldwide, 20 of which are in North America. They are divided into three groups: bitterns, herons and egrets, and night herons. Florida has two species of bitterns, eight species of herons and egrets, and two species of night herons.

The little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) is listed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) as a Species of Special Concern. It is common and widespread throughout most of Florida but is somewhat rare in parts of the panhandle. Its population declined during the 19th and 20th centuries as a result of both human-induced and natural impacts to seasonal water levels at its wetland breeding colonies and foraging sites. It may also be impacted by pollutants as it forages at sites developed by humans such as drainage ditches, canals, fish ponds and impoundments.

It can be observed foraging and nesting in both freshwater and saltwater shallow environments, though it prefers freshwater wetlands over saltwater wetlands. It is common on Sanibel and Captiva Islands, as well as in south Florida.

The little blue heron is medium size at 25-29 inches in total length with a wingspread of 40 inches. Breeding adults are slate blue with a shaggy maroon head. The distal third of the bill is black with the rest of the bill and orbital skin cobalt blue (dark gray, in nonbreeding plumage); the iris is grayish-green (pale yellow, nonbreeding); the legs are black (grayish green, nonbreeding). Its long lanceolate plumes are prominent from the head crest to the back during the breeding season.

The little blue heron wearing its breeding plumage. Photo by William R. Cox.

The little blue heron is unique among North America’s herons and egrets in having a white phase during its immature and juvenile stages. During its molting plumage transition, the slate blue feathers of the adult are filled in gradually, and this stage of development is known as “calico” or “pied.” It acquires its full adult plumage at two years of age. It begins breeding at 11-12 months. The breeding sub-adult obtains the cobalt blue on the bill and orbital skin, but its legs remain yellow-green.

 When in its white phase, the little blue heron can be confused with four other herons and egrets except for subtle differences. The snowy egret (E. thula) has yellow feet (golden slippers), black legs (black stockings) and yellow lores (the area between the eye and the bill), while the immature little blue heron has greenish feet and legs. It also has dusky tipped primary feathers. The cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) is shorter and stockier with a yellow-orange bill. It feeds on insects in dry fields where cattle are grazing or large mowers are working. The great egret (Ardea alba) is much larger and has a yellow-orange bill with black legs and feet. During the breeding season it sports green facial skin. The white morph of the reddish egret (E. rufescens) is much larger and has a very long and heavy bill. The tarsal joint, which is informally referred to as the “knee,” is very low on the leg of the reddish egret. The reddish egret is also the most active and entertaining heron or egret as it chases small fish in shallow water.

The little blue heron’s diet includes amphibians, fish, reptiles and aquatic invertebrates. It is partial to frogs. The little blue herons that nest in marine-estuarine areas will fly inland to forage in shallow freshwater wetlands because nestlings are intolerant of a high salt content in the prey. This heron is a patient stand-and-wait predator. It will also walk slowly through shallow wetlands as it stalks and stabs for prey.

The little blue heron in its unique white phase as a juvenile. Photo by William R. Cox.

It nests above water in a large variety of trees and shrubs such as southern willow, cypress, red maple, red mangrove and black mangrove. The male may start a nest during courtship but eventually brings sticks to the female as she builds a bulky platform nest. They both incubate three to five pale greenish-blue eggs for 22-24 days. The downy young are semi-altricial at birth. Nestlings can stand and walk out onto branches at 10-12 days. The young are fully feathered and independent, except for feeding, at 21-24 days. They fledge after six to seven weeks and may live to be 12 years old.

Setting aside wetland mitigation banks and other preserves for wading-bird foraging and nesting will help the survival of the little blue heron. Enforcing setback distances of 100 meters as recommended by FWC to protect breeding colonies from human disturbance will also help.

Written by William R. Cox, who has been a professional nature photographer and ecologist for more than 35 years. Visit him online at williamrcoxphotography.com.

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  • In this inventive and highly theatrical adaptation, join Peter and Lucy on their travels to Narni...


  • Seminole Shootout Battle Reenactments and a 5-Star Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) ...


  • Seminole Shootout Battle Reenactments and a 5-Star Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) ...


  • Songwriter Saturdays

    03/03/2018
    01:00PM — 05:00PM

    The hit sounds and hip artists of Nashville are coming to Captiva Island — as 'Tween Waters Islan...


  • Dreams of Nature

    03/03/2018
    02:00PM

    Opening the 2018 Spring Season, is Dreams of Nature, featuring Sir Frederick Ashton’s triumphant ...


  • Wicked Dolphin Distillery Tour

    03/03/2018
    03:00PM — 04:00PM

    We will take you through the steps of how we source our ingredients, cook, ferment, distill, in o...


  • Complete original art while enjoying friends, music and favorite beverages. Materials provided, o...


  • Norma

    03/03/2018
    07:30PM

    In Roman-occupied Gaul, a Druid priestess and a Roman official—Norma and Pollione—have fallen in ...


  • Dreams of Nature

    03/03/2018
    07:30PM

    Opening the 2018 Spring Season, is Dreams of Nature, featuring Sir Frederick Ashton’s triumphant ...


  • Improv Tonight!

    03/03/2018
    08:00PM

    Join us the first Saturday of every month for some of Southwest Florida’s best improvisational co...


  • Northside Hollow

    03/03/2018
    08:00PM

    Trapped underground after a deadly collapse, a coal miner finds his salvation in the arrival of a...


  • Sanibel Island Farmer's Market

    03/04/2018
    08:00AM — 01:00PM

    The Sanibel Island Farmers Market was established in 2008. It is a favorite outdoor activity for...


  • Our Top Rated Fine Art and Fine Craft Festivals are rated #2 in the Nation by sources ranking the...


  • Manon Lescaut

    03/04/2018
    01:30PM

    Love at first sight strikes the Chevalier Des Grieux and the enchanting Manon Lescaut. They flee ...


  • Northside Hollow

    03/04/2018
    02:00PM

    Trapped underground after a deadly collapse, a coal miner finds his salvation in the arrival of a...


  • The environmental center is open to the public Monday-Saturday, from 8am-4pm, unless there is a p...


  • Mondays with Marie

    03/05/2018
    09:00AM — 02:00PM

    Local artist, Marie Dyer, teaches a variety of workshops including landscape and silk painting fo...


  • Mondays with Marie

    03/05/2018
    09:00AM — 02:00PM

    Local artist, Marie Dyer, teaches a variety of workshops including landscape and silk painting fo...


  • Kid's Cooking Classes

    03/05/2018
    02:30PM — 05:30PM

    Must be at least 8 years old Explore Farm to table cooking Regional specialties & global flavo...


  • Complete original art while enjoying friends, music and favorite beverages. Materials provided, o...


  • Open Painting at The Paint Escape

    03/06/2018
    10:00AM — 06:00PM

    Ceramic painting for children and adults, create a decorative item. Friday night offers ladie...


  • Surfside Sunset Market

    03/06/2018
    01:00PM — 06:00PM

    The Surfside Sunset Market is located at The Shops at Surfside. From November through April, the ...


  • Wicked Dolphin Distillery Tour

    03/06/2018
    03:00PM — 04:00PM

    We will take you through the steps of how we source our ingredients, cook, ferment, distill, in o...


  • Complete original art while enjoying friends, music and favorite beverages. Materials provided, o...


  • Norma

    03/06/2018
    07:30PM

    In Roman-occupied Gaul, a Druid priestess and a Roman official—Norma and Pollione—have fallen in ...


  • Northside Hollow

    03/06/2018
    08:00PM

    Trapped underground after a deadly collapse, a coal miner finds his salvation in the arrival of a...


  • Rotary Club of Bonita Springs: Weekly Meeting

    03/07/2018
    07:00AM — 08:30AM

    Meetings are every Wednesday morning at the Bonita Bay Country Club. Breakfast begins at 7 a.m. a...


  • Open Painting at The Paint Escape

    03/07/2018
    10:00AM — 06:00PM

    Ceramic painting for children and adults, create a decorative item. Friday night offers ladie...


  • Complete original art while enjoying friends, music and favorite beverages. Materials provided, o...


  • Open Mic Night at The French Press

    03/07/2018
    06:30PM — 09:30PM

    Grab your instrument, warm up your voice, Wednesdays from 6:30- 9:30pm.


  • Audubon Society Speaker

    03/07/2018
    06:30PM

    CROW is honored to have the Executive Director of the Florida Audubon society as a special guest ...


  • Carmen

    03/07/2018
    07:30PM

    All-consuming, ill-fated passion rules the tumultuous love of a gypsy and a corporal. Carmen ...


  • Northside Hollow

    03/07/2018
    08:00PM

    Trapped underground after a deadly collapse, a coal miner finds his salvation in the arrival of a...


  • Birdwatching

    03/08/2018
    09:00AM — 10:30AM

    Each Thursday morning, we offer a walking tour to discover the birds of Sanibel Island's East End...


  • Open Painting at The Paint Escape

    03/08/2018
    10:00AM — 06:00PM

    Ceramic painting for children and adults, create a decorative item. Friday night offers ladie...


  • In partnership with the Frances Pew Hayes Center for Lifelong Learning, Hodges University is pres...


  • In partnership with the Frances Pew Hayes Center for Lifelong Learning, Hodges University is pres...


  • Wicked Dolphin Distillery Tour

    03/08/2018
    03:00PM — 04:00PM

    We will take you through the steps of how we source our ingredients, cook, ferment, distill, in o...


  • 14th Annual Magic Under the Mangroves

    03/08/2018
    05:30PM — 09:30PM

    The Conservancy of Southwest Florida will host the 14th annual Magic Under the Mangroves gala din...


  • Complete original art while enjoying friends, music and favorite beverages. Materials provided, o...


  • Shell Point Retirement Community’s 2017-2018 Concert Series welcomes Southwest Florida Symphony t...


  • Norma

    03/08/2018
    07:30PM

    In Roman-occupied Gaul, a Druid priestess and a Roman official—Norma and Pollione—have fallen in ...


  • Northside Hollow

    03/08/2018
    08:00PM

    Trapped underground after a deadly collapse, a coal miner finds his salvation in the arrival of a...


  • The environmental center is open to the public Monday-Saturday, from 8am-4pm, unless there is a p...


  • Open Painting at The Paint Escape

    03/09/2018
    10:00AM — 06:00PM

    Ceramic painting for children and adults, create a decorative item. Friday night offers ladie...


  • Friday Nine & Dine

    03/09/2018
    03:30PM

    Looking for a fun golf league at a TEE-rific value and the chance to make some new friends this w...


  • Ladies' Night at The Paint Escape

    03/09/2018
    06:00PM — 09:00PM

    Ceramic painting for children and adults, create a decorative item. Friday night offers ladie...


  • Cape Coral Star Gazing Party

    03/09/2018
    07:00PM — 10:00PM

    Friday, March 9th, 2018 7pm-10pm Free! No flashlights, please. Join the Southwest Florida ...


  • Carmen

    03/09/2018
    07:30PM

    All-consuming, ill-fated passion rules the tumultuous love of a gypsy and a corporal. Carmen ...


  • Northside Hollow

    03/09/2018
    08:00PM

    Trapped underground after a deadly collapse, a coal miner finds his salvation in the arrival of a...


  • The environmental center is open to the public Monday-Saturday, from 8am-4pm, unless there is a p...


  • Downtown Farmers Market

    03/10/2018
    08:00AM — 01:00PM

    The Cape Coral Farmers’ Market is located in downtown Cape Coral at the intersection of S.E. 47th...


  • Bonita Springs Farmers Market

    03/10/2018
    08:00AM — 12:00PM

    Join us every Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon through April 28th on the west side of the parking lot...


  • Community Beach Walk

    03/10/2018
    09:00AM

    Join us for a casual guided beach walk to explore what's washed ashore. Let's talk about some of ...


  • Open Painting at The Paint Escape

    03/10/2018
    10:00AM — 06:00PM

    Ceramic painting for children and adults, create a decorative item. Friday night offers ladie...


  • Nature Hike

    03/10/2018
    10:00AM — 11:00AM

    Join a park naturalist for a walk on the Nature Trails of Koreshan State Historic Site. Learn som...


  • Sun Splash Opening Day!

    03/10/2018
    10:00AM — 05:00PM

    Slide into the 2018 season with some fun in the sun March 10th from 10am - 5pm!☺️☀️ Enjoy 14-a...


  • In this inventive and highly theatrical adaptation, join Peter and Lucy on their travels to Narni...


  • Wicked Dolphin Distillery Tour

    03/10/2018
    03:00PM — 04:00PM

    We will take you through the steps of how we source our ingredients, cook, ferment, distill, in o...


  • The Black Party

    03/10/2018
    05:00PM

    Sarasota's most exciting all-black-attire event returns for it's third installment. On March 10, ...


  • Complete original art while enjoying friends, music and favorite beverages. Materials provided, o...


  • Tiefland

    03/10/2018
    07:30PM

    Marta is the unwilling mistress of a wealthy landowner, Sebastiano. To keep the poor girl near hi...


  • Northside Hollow

    03/10/2018
    08:00PM

    Trapped underground after a deadly collapse, a coal miner finds his salvation in the arrival of a...


  • Sanibel Island Farmer's Market

    03/11/2018
    08:00AM — 01:00PM

    The Sanibel Island Farmers Market was established in 2008. It is a favorite outdoor activity for...


  • Norma

    03/11/2018
    01:30PM

    In Roman-occupied Gaul, a Druid priestess and a Roman official—Norma and Pollione—have fallen in ...


  • Northside Hollow

    03/11/2018
    02:00PM

    Trapped underground after a deadly collapse, a coal miner finds his salvation in the arrival of a...


  • Bernstein At 100

    03/11/2018
    07:00PM — 09:00PM

    Fort Myers Symphonic Mastersingers Jeffrey Faux, Artistic Director A celebration of Leonard B...