Types of Herons in California! (9 species)

What kinds of herons can you find in California?

common herons, egrets, and bitterns - common herons in california

 

If you visit any type of water habitat, you are likely to see at least one species of heron. These elegant birds are typically found in shallow water, which they enjoy wading through to find food.

 

Some types of herons are easy to spot when they are around, such as Great Blue Herons. But make sure to keep a close watch near dense aquatic vegetation for smaller, more inconspicuous species.

 

Today, you will learn about 9 herons that live in California!

 

For each heron species, I provide some fun facts and identify them by sight OR sound. Make sure to pay attention to the range maps to see which herons live near you!

  • The range maps below were generously shared with permission from The Birds of The World, published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I use their site OFTEN to learn new information about birds!

 

To learn more about other water birds near you, check out these guides!

 

The 9 Types of Herons That Live in California:

 


#1. Great Blue Heron

great blue heron - types of herons in california

Identifying Characteristics:

  • A very tall and large bird, with a long neck and a wide black stripe over their eye.
  • As the name suggests, they are a grayish-blue color.
  • Long feather plumes on their head, neck, and back.

 

Great Blue Heron Range Map

great blue heron range map

 

Great Blue Herons are typically seen in California along the edges of rivers, lakes, and wetlands.

 

Most of the time, they will either be motionless or moving very slowly through the water, looking for their prey. But watch them closely because when an opportunity presents itself, these herons will strike quickly and ferociously to grab something to eat. Common foods include fish, frogs, reptiles, small mammals, and even other birds.

Check out the Bird Watching HQ YouTube Channel HERE!

 

Great Blue Herons appear majestic in flight, and once you know what to look for, it’s pretty easy to spot them. Watch the skies for a LARGE bird that folds its neck into an “S” shape and has its legs trailing straight behind.

 

Believe it or not, Great Blue Herons mostly build their nests, which are made out of sticks, very high up in trees. In addition, they almost always nest in large colonies that can include up to 500 different breeding pairs. And unbelievably, almost all of the breeding pairs nest in the same few trees!

 

When disturbed, these large birds make a loud “kraak” or “fraunk” sound, which can also be heard when in flight. Listen below!

 


#2. American Bittern

american bittern - species of herons in california

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • A medium-sized, stout heron that is a buffy brown color.
  • Underparts are white with brown streaks.

 

Consider yourself lucky if you can spot an American Bittern in California!

 

These herons live in freshwater marshes and are extremely secretive and perfectly camouflaged for their habitat.

 

American Bittern Range Map

american bittern range map

 

American Bitterns are most often seen standing motionless, waiting for a fish, invertebrate, amphibian, or reptile to wander near. Once their prey gets close enough, their head darts quickly to grab the victim to swallow headfirst. Interestingly, indigestible parts don’t pass through their digestive system but instead are regurgitated as pellets!

 

Sound is one of the best ways to find these herons in California! During the breeding season, listen for a loud, odd-sounding “oong-KA-chunk” call, which has a liquid sound to it. (Listen below)

 


#3. Black-crowned Night-Heron

black crowned night heron - common herons in california

Identifying Characteristics:

  • A relatively small, stocky, compact heron.
  • Appears a bit hunchbacked, as it often tucks its neck into its body.
  • Black head and back, which contrast against its white belly and gray wings.

 

Black-crowned Night-Heron Range Map

black crowned night heron range map

 

Black-crowned Night-Herons are common in wetlands across California. In fact, they are the most widespread heron in the world, but they are often hard to actually locate and see!

 

As their name suggests, these herons are most active at dusk and during the evening. While the sun is out, they spend the day hiding amongst brush and vegetation near the water’s edge. By foraging at night, these birds avoid competition from other heron species!

 

When surprised or under duress, Black-crowned Night-Herons give a loud, barking “quawk. While at their nesting colonies, you can hear a variety of other croaks, barks, hisses, screams, clucks, and rattles. LISTEN BELOW!

 


#4. Green Heron

green heron

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Small heron with a long, dagger-like bill.
  • Their back is gray-green. Head and neck are chestnut-brown, except for the green-black cap on the head.
  • The neck is commonly drawn into their body.

 

Green Heron Range Map

green heron range map

 

This small heron is found in California in any wet habitat that includes lots of vegetation, which provides places for them to stay hidden. You will most often see them foraging at dawn or dusk, as they prefer to stay out of sight during most of the day.

 

Green Herons are ambush predators and mainly eat fish, waiting patiently for a small one to swim by so they can snap it up with their long bill. Interestingly, these birds actually use tools to help them hunt! They will drop insects, feathers, or other items into the water, which entice small fish to come closer to investigate.

 

The first time I heard the “skeow” call of an alarmed Green Heron in the marsh behind my house, I had no idea what I heard because it was so unique. But luckily, these sounds are easy to learn, and now I can easily identify these herons when I’m visiting most wetlands.

 


#5. Great Egret

great egret

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Large, white bird with long, black legs.
  • S-curved neck and a daggerlike yellow bill. Look for a greenish area between their eyes and the base of the bill.
  • While they fly, their neck is tucked in, and their long legs trail behind.

 

Appearance-wise, Great Egrets are the most stunning heron found in California. These birds especially put on a show during breeding season when they grow long feathery plumes, called aigrettes, which are held up during courtship displays.

 

Great Egret Range Map

great egret range map

 

In fact, these aigrettes are so beautiful, Great Egrets were almost hunted to extinction in the 19th century because these feathers made such nice decorations on ladies’ hats. The National Audubon Society was actually formed in response to help protect these birds from being slaughtered. To this day, the Great Egret serves as the symbol for the organization.

 

Slightly smaller than a Great Blue Heron, this species eats almost anything that may be in the water. The list includes reptiles, birds, amphibians, small mammals, and countless invertebrates.

 

Great Egrets don’t get any awards for their beautiful songs. Listen for a loud sound that is best described as a croak (“kraak).” When surprised, you may hear a fast “cuk-cuk-cuk” alarm call. LISTEN BELOW!

 


#6. Cattle Egret

cattle egret

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Smaller heron with a yellow bill that often perches with its neck drawn in.
  • Nonbreeding adults are entirely white with black legs.
  • Breeding adults are white but have yellow legs and golden feathers on their head, back, and breast.

Cattle Egret Range Map

cattle egret range map

 

Cattle Egrets are a bit unique when compared to other herons in California. Instead of spending their time near water, these birds typically live in fields, where they forage for invertebrates that have been kicked up at the feet of grazing livestock. It’s also common to see them looking for ticks on the backs of cattle!

 

Interestingly, Cattle Egrets are not native to North America. These herons are originally from Africa but found their way here in the 1950s and have since spread across the country. Their range keeps slowly expanding as people convert land for farming and livestock.

 

At any time of the year, listen for repeated, raspy “rick-rack” calls.

 


#7. Snowy Egret

snowy egret

Identifying Characteristics:

  • A completely white, medium-sized heron with a black dagger-like bill.
  • Black legs, but their feet are yellow.
  • A yellow patch of skin beneath their eye.

Snowy Egret Range Map

snowy egret range map

 

These beautiful herons will often use their yellow feet to stir up water or mud to help them uncover hiding invertebrates, amphibians, or fish. Once their prey has been found, Snowy Egrets have no problem running their food down to finish the job!

 

Sibling rivalry with these birds can be intense, to say the least.

 

As you can see in the video above, the weakest hatchling is sometimes thrown out of the nest by its brothers and sisters! While this can be sad to see, this behavior ensures that the strongest babies get the most amount of food.

 

Interestingly, Snowy Egrets will breed with other heron species, such as other similarly sized birds like Tricolored Herons, Little Blue Herons, and Cattle Egrets. So if you see a heron that you can’t seem to identify, it may be a hybrid!

 


#8. Least Bittern

least bittern

Identifying Characteristics:

  • A small heron that has a hunchbacked appearance, and a long, pointed yellow bill.
  • Unlike most other heron species, male and female Least Bitterns look different.
    • Males: Extremely dark green back and crown.
    • Females: Dark brown back and crown.

 

Least Bitterns are the smallest heron you will find in California!

 

And not only are these birds small, but they can be tough to actually see. Least Bitterns blend in perfectly to their wetland environments and seem to appear out of the reeds or cattails. To find one, you will need lots of patience and a bit of luck. ๐Ÿ™‚

 

Least Bittern Range Map

least bittern range map

 

Surprisingly, Least Bitterns can be found searching for food in fairly deep water. Unlike other herons that wade through the water, these birds are light enough to grasp onto reeds, which allows them to hunt while being suspended in midair!

Spring might be your best time to find one of these herons, as the males make a “coo-coo-coo-coo” sound, which they use to attract mates and mark their territory.

 


#9. Little Blue Heron

little blue heron

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults: Have a slate-gray body and a purple-maroon head and neck.
  • Juveniles: During their first year, these herons are completely white!
  • Look for a two-toned bill, regardless of the bird’s age, which is gray with a black tip.

 

Little Blue Herons are found in shallow wetlands in California. They are patient hunters and will stay motionless for long periods of time, waiting for prey to pass by them. While waiting, they keep their daggerlike bill pointed downwards to be prepared for the moment a fish, amphibian, insect, or crustacean appears.

 

Little Blue Heron Range Map

little blue heron range map

 

As you can see above, juvenile Little Blue Herons look completely different than adults! It’s thought that these birds adapted this white plumage so they can be tolerated by Snowy Egrets, who catch more fish. Hanging out with large flocks of white herons also probably helps with avoiding predators. ๐Ÿ™‚

 

Little Blue Herons are mostly silent, but it is possible to hear them squeaking when alarmed. They also emit various screams and croaks while nesting at a colony.

 


Need additional help identifying the herons that live near you?

Here are a few books and resources you can purchase that will assist!

 


Which of these heron species have you seen before in California?

 

Leave a comment below!

 

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