8 Types of Herons in Newfoundland and Labrador

From the mighty great blue herons stalking the coastline to the elegant white plumes of the great egrets, Newfoundland and Labrador host an array of beautiful heron species. These long-legged wading birds frequent the province’s bountiful wetlands and waterways, where they hunt for fish, frogs and other prey. Their large nesting colonies come alive in spring with squawking chicks. While many heron species migrate south for the winter, some remain as long as open water provides ample food sources. This article explores 8 of the most common heron species found gracing the diverse wetland habitats of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Heron Species Size Habitat
Great Blue Heron Over 1 m tall, up to 2 m wingspan Saltwater coasts, marshes, swamps, ponds, lakes
Great Egret Over 1 m tall, up to 1.5 m wingspan Saltwater habitats like estuaries, marshes, shorelines
Green Heron 46–51 cm long, 81 cm wingspan Small wetlands near wooded areas
Little Blue Heron 61–74 cm long, about 1 m wingspan Saltwater and brackish water habitats
Tricolored Heron 56–66 cm long, 91–107 cm wingspan Coastal wetlands
Cattle Egret 45–55 cm long, 88–96 cm wingspan Open fields, pastures, wetlands, shorelines
Black-crowned Night-Heron 58–70 cm long, 106–137 cm wingspan Marshes, swamps, ponds, shorelines
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron 61–74 cm long, 107–122 cm wingspan Marshes, swamps, mangroves, shorelines

1. Great Blue Heron

The great blue heron (Ardea herodias) is the largest and most widespread heron species found in Newfoundland and Labrador. It stands over 1 m tall with a wingspan of up to 2 m. Great blue herons have a slate-gray body with a white head and neck. They have a thick dagger-like bill that turns yellow during breeding season.

Great blue herons are found near saltwater coasts, marshes, swamps, ponds and lakes throughout Newfoundland and Labrador. They nest in colonies called heronries, often alongside other wading bird species. The large stick nests are built high up in trees near water. Females lay between 3 to 6 pale blue eggs each year.

These patient hunters move slowly through shallow water searching for small fish, amphibians, crustaceans, reptiles and small mammals to eat. They stab quickly with their sharp bill when prey is located. Great blue herons are most active at dawn and dusk when hunting conditions are optimal.

Great blue herons are migratory in the northern parts of their range, but many Newfoundland and Labrador birds may remain year-round provided adequate food is available. They have few natural predators, but are sometimes preyed upon by bald eagles. Loss of wetland habitat is the biggest threat facing great blue heron populations today.

2. Great Egret

The great egret (Ardea alba) is a large, elegant white heron adorned with long plumes during breeding season. It stands over 1 m tall with a wingspan approaching 1.5 m. Identifying features include entirely white plumage, black legs and a long yellow bill.

Great egrets breed in colonies with other wading birds, often great blue herons, throughout the southern United States. However, their breeding range has expanded northward in recent decades. Small numbers now nest irregularly in coastal Newfoundland and Labrador. The first colony was discovered in 1994 at Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve. More nests have since been found at locations like Terra Nova National Park.

During the nonbreeding season, great egrets migrate south but many overwinter along the Atlantic coast where open water persists. They frequent saltwater habitats like estuaries, marshes and shorelines looking for fish, frogs, small reptiles and invertebrates. Great egrets hunt by patiently standing or walking slowly through shallow water before spearing prey with their long bills.

Expanding great egret populations are a conservation success story after the species was hunted extensively in the past for its decorative plumes. The elegant birds continue to face threats from habitat loss, human disturbance and environmental contaminants. Breeding colonies in Newfoundland and Labrador are carefully monitored.

3. Green Heron

The green heron (Butorides virescens) is a small, compact heron species found during the breeding season in southern Newfoundland and Labrador. Adults are 46–51 cm long with a wingspan around 81 cm. They have dark gray-green upperparts, a rich rufous-colored neck and underparts, and a line extending from the bill back across the face. The bill is thick and dagger-like. Legs are yellowish or greenish.

Green herons inhabit small wetlands near wooded areas, including saltwater and freshwater marshes, ponds, lakes and slow-moving streams. They arrive in April or May to breed in loose colonies, often mixed in with other wading birds. The nest is a small platform of sticks built low in bushes, thickets or trees over the water. Females lay between 3 to 5 pale blue-green eggs.

These compact herons stealthily hunt small fish, amphibians, reptiles, crustaceans and insects while standing motionless along shorelines or perching on branches overhanging water. They may also drop bait to attract fish. Green herons frequently flick their wings during breeding displays and to startle prey. They also use tools, dropping objects like twigs, feathers or insects on the water’s surface to lure in curious fish.

Most green herons migrate from Newfoundland and Labrador in late summer or early fall, though some may overwinter along the coast during mild conditions. Loss of wetland breeding habitat is the primary threat to populations.

4. Little Blue Heron

The little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) is a small-to-medium sized heron that sporadically breeds in coastal Newfoundland and Labrador. Adults grow 61–74 cm long with a wingspan of about 1 m. They have slate-blue upperparts, a maroon-colored neck and underparts, a thick dagger-shaped bill and green legs. During breeding, the bill, neck and legs turn a bluish hue. Juveniles are entirely white.

This species inhabits saltwater and brackish water habitats, including marshes, tidal flats, mangroves and shorelines. They forage while standing still or wading methodically through shallow water searching for small fish, amphibians, reptiles, crustaceans and insects. Little blue herons nest colonially, often alongside tricolored herons, building a platform nest of sticks low in trees or shrubs above the water. Females lay between 2 to 5 pale blue eggs.

While the primary breeding range is along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the southern United States, little blue herons have sporadically spread north to nest in small numbers in Newfoundland and Labrador in some years. It is unclear whether breeding succeeds regularly this far north. Most birds migrate out of Canada in fall, wintering to the south.

Declining populations in parts of their range have raised conservation concerns for the little blue heron. Loss of coastal wetland habitat and exposure to environmental contaminants may be contributing factors. Breeding colonies in Canada are tracked when located.

5. Tricolored Heron

The tricolored heron (Egretta tricolor) is a sleek, medium-sized heron that can be identified by its bluish-gray upperparts, rufous neck and underparts, and white belly. Adults reach 56–66 cm long with a 91–107 cm wingspan. The long, straight bill is orange with a black tip. Legs and feet are yellow.

This species inhabits coastal wetlands along the southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts. It breeds colonially with other herons, typically in trees or bushes over standing water. Loose platform nests of sticks and twigs are constructed for 3 to 4 light blue eggs. Tricolored herons forage in shallow water and wetlands searching for fish, frogs, crustaceans, reptiles, insects and small mammals.

While the core breeding range lies to the south, tricolored herons have sometimes expanded north to nest in small numbers in Newfoundland and Labrador. However, nesting may not occur annually this far north. Most birds migrate out of Canada to overwinter along the U.S. coastline and south.

Widespread in the 1800s, tricolored heron numbers dropped sharply due to plume hunting and habitat loss. Populations are now recovering and expanding thanks to conservation measures. Continued protection of wetland habitats is needed to safeguard breeding and foraging areas for this species.

6. Cattle Egret

The cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) is a small white heron species found in association with livestock in open fields. It reaches 45–55 cm in length with a wingspan of 88–96 cm. The bill and legs are yellowish and the head, neck and back feature buffy orange plumes during breeding season. Nonbreeding adults have no plumes and the bill and legs turn a grayish color.

Cattle egrets live up to their name and frequently follow livestock such as cattle and horses across pastures. They feed on insects and other small prey flushed up by the large animals. Cattle egrets also forage in wetlands and along shorelines when available.

This species breeds colonially in trees and shrubs, often mixed in with other heron species. Males construct platform nests out of sticks that females then line with vegetation and feathers. Females lay between 2 to 6 pale bluish eggs.

Native to Africa, cattle egrets spread to the Americas in the late 1800s and have continued moving northward. They now breed sporadically in small numbers in Newfoundland and Labrador when conditions allow. Most migrate south out of Canada in winter.

Expanding populations have benefited this adaptable species greatly. They still face threats from habitat loss and degradation, climate change, and exposure to pesticides and contaminants. Monitoring breeding colonies helps conserve cattle egrets in Newfoundland and Labrador.

7. Black-crowned Night-Heron

The black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) is a stocky heron active at dawn and dusk, as its name suggests. Adults are 58–70 cm long with a wingspan of 106–137 cm. They are easily identified by their black-and-gray back and wings contrasting with a white belly and large white cheek patch. Adults have two long white head plumes during breeding season. The stout bill is black while legs are yellow or red.

These crepuscular, colonial-nesting herons inhabit marshes, swamps, ponds and shorelines with dense vegetation. They breed colonially in sheltered wetland trees and shrubs, constructing a large stick nest. Between 3 to 6 greenish-blue eggs are laid. Black-crowned night-herons forage at dusk and dawn, feeding on fish, amphibians, crustaceans, insects, small mammals and reptiles.

In Canada, breeding occurs locally across southern British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Small numbers may nest irregularly in suitable habitat in Newfoundland and Labrador as well. Most migrate south in winter, though some overwinter along coastal areas where open water persists.

Wetland habitat loss necessitates continued conservation efforts for the black-crowned night-heron. Monitoring breeding colonies provides an important means of tracking populations. Other threats include human disturbance, exposure to pollutants, climate change impacts on wetlands and nest predation.

8. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

The yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea) is a stocky, nocturnal heron named for the white or yellow plumes on its head. Adults reach 61–74 cm long with a 107–122 cm wingspan. They have gray upperparts, black-streaked white underparts and red eyes. The stout bill is black and legs are yellow. Juveniles lack the plumes and are browner overall.

This crepuscular species inhabits marshes, swamps, mangroves and shorelines along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. It breeds in colonies, often with other wading birds, building stick nests in dense wetland vegetation. Between 3 to 5 pale blue or green eggs are laid. Yellow-crowned night-herons forage at night for crabs, crayfish, amphibians, fish, insects and small reptiles and mammals.

In Canada, the core breeding range extends up the St. Lawrence River valley into southern Quebec. Irregular nesting has been detected in the Maritime provinces and sightings have occurred in Newfoundland and Labrador, but this represents the northern limits of the species’ range. Most migrate to the southern United States and Latin America for winter.

Wetland habitat conservation is vital to sustaining yellow-crowned night-heron populations, like with many other heron species. Continued protection and management of breeding colonies will help provide site-specific population data to guide conservation efforts. Other threats include human disturbance, predation and exposure to pollutants.

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