Bittern, Herons and Egrets in East Africa
Order Pelecaniformes, family Ardeidae – Herons, Egrets and Bittern
Most 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 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.
We are lucky to have photos of all the Ardeola species, egrets and bitterns from East Africa. Click on photos to enlarge.
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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 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 (Aredeola rufiventris) is rare in densly 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 (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.