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Herons of Alberta

by Courtney Collins

Did you know Alberta has four species of heron, with an additional six species that have been sighted here but do not reside in Alberta as part of their regular range? They aren’t all named “heron,” so it can be tricky to know all of them. The scientific family Ardeidae includes the herons, egrets, and bitterns – in Alberta you can find the great blue heron, black-crowned night heron, American bittern, and great egret.1

Herons generally have a long neck, with some more pronounced or longer than others. They are all water birds and reside in wetlands across Alberta. Of course, some are easier to spot than others – like the great blue heron, which is the most well-known and easiest to spot both because
of its distinctive, regal, look and its distribution. Great blue herons reside over the southeastern portion of Alberta. You may have seen one without realising it, as these tall birds are incredibly still while standing in the water, waiting for their prey to swim by. These herons are grey-blue in
colour with a mostly white head, including some neat long, black feathers on their head that take on the look of a unique hairstyle. When these birds are wading, you can see only their pale grey-blue back feathers, but in flight, the ends of their wing feathers are a much darker grey-blue.2
You’ll have the best chance of spotting a great blue heron in the summer months as they migrate into Alberta for the warmer weather and leave during the winter.3

The black-crowned night heron looks exactly as the name suggests – it has a black crown of feathers adorning the top of its head and top part of its back. The remainder of its wings are pale grey in colour and its belly is white. These herons have beautiful dark red eyes that add to their distinctive look. This species is found across central and southeastern Alberta and are one of the smaller species of heron. The black-crowned night heron is unique because it hunts mostly at night, as its name suggests.4 The best time to see this species is spring and summer, as they migrate south of Alberta come winter.5

The American bittern is a relatively small-medium heron species, with a shorter neck and stouter build. It is brown in colour but made up of many brown streaks with a white belly. Although their distribution is Alberta-wide, their colouration makes them very difficult to spot, as they are
perfectly camouflaged to blend in with their environment.6 This species has a unique call that you will often hear long before spotting one7 – you can listen to its call online to familiarize yourself ahead of going out to find one.

The great egret is a fully white bird with long, black legs. This species is sometimes referred to as the “Great White Heron”.8 During the breeding season, males of this species have showy display feathers called aigrettes that surround their backs like a white firework display, along
with a pale lime green colouration around their eyes.9 Similar to the other heron species, this species also migrates south for the winter and although rare in Alberta, can be found in the spring and summer months in southern Alberta.10 Although the great egret was almost hunted to extinction because of their beautiful aigrettes, most populations have rebounded thanks to strong protections.11

Other herons that have been sighted in Alberta but do not have a normal range here include the yellow-crowned night heron, green heron, tricoloured heron, little blue heron, snowy egret, and cattle egret.12

Footnotes

1. Wikipedia, “List of birds of Alberta”, Wikipedia, January 13, 2023,
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_birds_of_Alberta
2. Bird Watching HQ, “8 Types of Herons Found in Alberta (2023)”, Bird Watching HQ, 2023,
https://birdwatchinghq.com/herons-in-alberta/
3. Bird Advisors, “All Herons In Alberta (ID, Photos, Calls)” Bird Advisors, 2023,
https://www.birdadvisors.com/herons-alberta/
4. Bird Watching HQ, “8 Types of Herons Found in Alberta (2023)”, Bird Watching HQ, 2023,
https://birdwatchinghq.com/herons-in-alberta/
5. Bird Advisors, “All Herons In Alberta (ID, Photos, Calls)” Bird Advisors, 2023,
https://www.birdadvisors.com/herons-alberta/
6. Bird Watching HQ, “8 Types of Herons Found in Alberta (2023)”, Bird Watching HQ, 2023,
https://birdwatchinghq.com/herons-in-alberta/
7. Bird Advisors, “All Herons In Alberta (ID, Photos, Calls)” Bird Advisors, 2023,
https://www.birdadvisors.com/herons-alberta/ 8. Bird Advisors, “All Herons In Alberta (ID, Photos, Calls)” Bird Advisors, 2023,
https://www.birdadvisors.com/herons-alberta/
9. Bird Watching HQ, “8 Types of Herons Found in Alberta (2023)”, Bird Watching HQ, 2023,
https://birdwatchinghq.com/herons-in-alberta/
10. Bird Advisors, “All Herons In Alberta (ID, Photos, Calls)” Bird Advisors, 2023,
https://www.birdadvisors.com/herons-alberta/
11. Ken Kaufman, “Great Egret Ardea alba”, Audubon, n.d., https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/great-egret
12. Denis LePage, “Avibase – Bird Checklists of the World Alberta”, Avibase – The World Bird Database, December 21, 2022, https://avibase.bsc-eoc.org/checklist.jsp?region=caab

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