Herons and Egrets
Black-headed Heron

Bittern, Herons and Egrets in East Africa

Order Pelecaniformes, family Ardeidae – Herons, Egrets and Bittern

Most members of this order have long legs, long necks and long sharp-pointed bills. They hunt fish in fresh, soda and salt water along the shore of lakes, rivers, Indian Ocean but also in swamps and marshes. Some herons hunt for all kind of smaller creatures like rodents, amphibians and reptiles. They move their neck until their prey in focused, then they catch it very fast.

They nest on trees and raise 1 – 3 young at a time. Some nest in colonies. The breeding plumage is slightly different to the non-breeding state. Both parents care for the young.

Since most most in this family eat slimy fish and amphibians making their feathers sticky which can hinder flight ability, they have “powder feathers“. These feathers don’t fall out but keep on growing and break constantly off at the tip. So the birds are always clean and able to fly.

Egrets are white and the seize ranges from tall to small. Some grow beautiful long feathers and change the colour of the beak and around when in breeding plumage.

Egrets are found in various habitats where fish, amphibians, reptiles, rodents and insects are found. 

Bitterns and Night Herons live in overgrown lake shores and rivers. Bitterns like tall vegetation to hide and are more difficult to spot. They are quite short but still have the long bill to catch aquatic creatures.

Herons are in the subfamily Ardeinae

Bittern in the subfamily Botaurinae

We are lucky to have photos of all the Ardeidae species, herons, egrets and bitterns from East Africa. This is thanks to the generosity of several amazing bird photographers. Click on photos to enlarge.

Good places to observe herons and egrets are in Amboseli National park and at the lakes Naivasha and Baringo.

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Goliath Heron (Ardea goliath) widespread in Africa at waters with fish. Locally common. 1.4 m – the tallest heron.

Purple Heron (Ardea p. purpurea) is wide spread in Africa but not common

Grey Heron (Ardea c. cinerea) is common and widespread in Africa in wetlands and in or near water

Black-headed Heron (Ardea melanocephala) is locally common in grassland, wetlands or near water. They breed in noisy colonies on trees. As you can see they also feed on snakes. Here on a Common Slug Eater (Duberria lutrix)

Intermediate (Yellow-billed) Egret (Ardea (intermedia) brachyrhyncha) locally common in Africa in marshes and at lakes with vegetation

Western great white Egret (Ardea alba melanorhynchos) widespread in Africa in and near water with fish and amphibians

Little Egret (Ardea g. garzetta) is quite wide spread at fresh and soda lakes and lagoons. This subspecies belongs to Eurasia, East and Southern Africa

Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) is a common egret often near herbivores catching insects, amphibians and small rodents. They are always in flocks and breed in colonies

Western Reef Heron / Egret (Egretta gularis schistacea) is found along the coastline and at inland lakes, mainly Lake Turkana and other Rift valley lakes. They can be white or grey. Photo Jacques Pitteloud

Dimorphic Egret (Egretta dimorpha) is found along Kenyan and Tanzanian coast. Very rare inland. White and grey morph exist. Photo on the right by Ivo Zafirov

Black Heron (Egret) (Egretta aredesiaca) is found at some lakes and along the coast. Resident and nomadic. Wings are spread like a bell to create shade to attract fish. Amboseli, February 2023

Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides) common at lakes with vegetation in Africa.

Madagascar Pond Heron (Ardeola idea) is an endangered migrant from Madagascar where they breed between May to October. They prefer lake shores with vegetation. Photo Per Holmen 

Rufous-bellied Heron (Ardeola rufiventris) is rare in densely vegetated marshes and flooded grassland. Uncommon resident and local migrant. Female, the male doesn’t have a white throat.

Striated Heron also known as Mangrove or Green-backed Heron (Butorides striata atricapilla) is found at water bodies fringed by trees and shrubs. Fairly common and wide spread in Africa.

White backed Night Heron

White-backed Night-Heron (Gorsachius leuconotus natalensis) prefers marshes and overgrown lake shores. Local and uncommon, best chances at Lake Baringo.
Photo Wilson Tiren (Birding Guide)

Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax n. nycticorax) likes rivers, lakes and rocky shores with bushes. Widespread and common.

Little Bittern, male (Ixobrychus minutus payesi) is an uncommon species in lake shore vegetation in Africa. 

Dwarf Bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii) is a rarely met intra African migrant following seasonal rains.