Herons - Ardeidae
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Waterbirds - there are so many of these long legged, long necks and sharp beaks birds sharing the lot of features they all have in common. In this family Ardeidae, there are 64 recognized species, though some white colored birds are changed to be called "egrets" or "bitterns" instead of "heron".

It is not easy to make a distinct classification of individual heron/egret species, as the tiny differences between them is not that clear cut. Like wise making an ID of them, for example between the various species of Egrets which are all white in color, is not easy. The differences between Herons & Egrets, could be somewhat a little bit more straight forward. All Egrets are assumed to have white feathers [all except the Pacific Reef] So much about introducing this family, Ardeidae and back to this page  that deals with birds having Heron as their names.

Heron, too, nest as a colony in trees.

The largest Heron seen in Malaysia is the Purple Heron at 90 cm  while the Striated Heron, the smallest at 40 cm. Some features of these Herons. They are able to kink their neck into an s-shape, due to the modified shape of the sixth vertebrae. Likewise, this action of retracting and extending is also used in flight. The smaller Herons, Pond Herons or Night Herons have shorter necks. The legs, bare without feathers, are long and strong are held backwards in flight. Finally, the bills are long and harpoon like. These bills could be fine or thick. As for colors, only the Pond Heron display dimorphism in plumage.

 
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Great-billed Heron Ardea sumatrana
Purple Heron Ardea purpurea
Striated Heron Butorides striata
   
Indian Pond Heron Ardeola grayii
Chinese Pond Heron Ardeola bacchus
Javan Pond Heron Ardeola speciosa
   
Malaysian Night Heron Gorsachius melanolophus
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
Rufous Night Heron Nycticorax caledonicus
   

Although all the birds named have their habitats related water. So not surprising that I have seen all the 3 groups of them in a single space sharing the same feeding and breeding environment. Other than this common turf, for myself, mentally I associate them in different settings. First, I go according to various habitats that they are seen most often - for example, the Herons in open country, the Pond-herons in sewage ponds and waterways and the Night-herons in colony. I think each of us will eventually find our own way to do a quick ID on these birds.

 

Heron

1. Striated Heron  Butorides striata amurensis

Size & diagnostic markings:- 44 Cm. This little heron is a bird using a normal passerine as standard, measuring 44 cm is a large bird seen on trees. But it happens to be smallest bird in the family of Herons. Mostly grey in color, also with a black crown, the bird has yellow eyes and olive-yellow legs changing to dull orange-yellow at the feet. In breeding plumage, the eyes and the legs, feet turn reddish.

 Distribution :-  They could be found in tropical and Africa, Asia and Australia. Known by a variety of names such as Mangrove Heron, Green-backed Heron and here in Malaysia commonly as Little Heron. Very common and seen in the estuary without fail.
 Habitats & preferences:- Mangrove forest, mudflats, fresh waterways with wooded environment. So not surprising that the bird would appear in your garden, if there is a stream or huge sewage drain nearby.
 In Malaysia, where can the bird be found:- We do not have much lakes and so I find the estuary is the best place where the bird is easily sighted.
 

My personal jottings :-

Subjected to more confirmation, I have some pictures shown here, may have features of another sub-species - B. s. spodiagaster found only in the South Burma and the Nicobar Islands. Main difference being in its darker grey plumage, more especially that of the neck, breast and abdomen, which are dark slaty-grey; the sides of the head have less white and are also a deeper grey.

This is a lone bird that patronizes waterways and building simple nest in the middle storey of trees near its feeding ground. Couple of times now above the urban roads, of course they are also seen in rural areas. When they are in the area of the mudflats, this bird would be seen singly but dotting the entire area. Cumulative, sighted in great numbers and among other Herons and Egrets but foraging alone at the mudflats and estuary. I have followed the nesting process of 3 pairs of birds with a site over a busy city road.

 
Record of bird's call:-    and Video:-

Little Heron  # 1

Little Heron # 2

Little Heron # 3

Little Heron # 4

Little Heron# 5

Little Heron # 6

Little Heron # 7

Little Heron # 8

Little Heron # 9

Little Heron # 10

Little Heron # 11

Little Heron # 12

Little Heron # 15

Little Heron # 16

Little Heron # 17

Little Heron # 18

Little Heron # 19

Little Heron # 20

Little Heron # 21

Little Heron # 22 [breeding]

Little Heron # 23

Little Heron # 24

Little Heron # 25

 Little Heron # 26 [breeding]

2. Grey Heron  Ardea cinerea jouyi

 Size & diagnostic markings:- 94 cm. The Grey Heron may be considered as big among the larger Herons. Again in this class of birds, the length made up by the long neck. Typical Heron - long legs and long neck. The upper part and wings coverts in light grey. Breast and chest almost white. Bill is thick. Upper part and wings coverts grey, under part white in color. During breeding season, the bills and legs turns orange-yellow and long black scapular plumes. Upper part turns more whitish making the black wing patch more prominent

 Distribution :-  This bird can be seen in  eastern Africa, the Indian sub-continent and all the  way east to Japan. Then down south to Sumatra & Java. The bird is now a common resident of Malaysia.
 Habitats & preferences:- I see that the bird prefers mainly coastal habitats and and wetlands in the Mangrove forest. Unlike the Purple Heron, this Grey Heron is not common in the padi fields which are near the coast. Perhaps in other mining lakes far away from the coast, some Grey Heron may be found. So a body of water looks imperative. Which also imply that if the coastal mudflats are available, that's the first choice.
 In Malaysia, where can the bird be found:- We do not have much lakes and so I find the estuary is the best place to see this birds. Plenty in Kuala Selangor Nature Park but cannot beat the numbers present in Bagan Sungei Buloh. It is not common and I have not seen the Grey Heron in heronry where the Purple heron are nesting. Both bird could be seen sharing the same habitat when feeding.
 
 My personal jottings :-

One notable point. The breeding plumage with its grey colors fading away gives the impression of another species in white. An interesting point I found is that the bird shifts its perches in rapid intervals. i.e. moving from from one spot to another quite regularly, giving plenty of opportunity to make pictures of them in flight. Then a single bird could be clustered with other smaller birds like Egrets and Pond-herons. Most times, though the bird was not grouped together but maintaining their distances from each other. The sheer number of Grey herons present at the same location makes the bird confident. They remain calm oblivious to human presence. Good subject to observe and a good subject to target for studying during the times when bird life in other areas is low.

 

Record of bird's call :-    and Video:-
 
Grey Heron  # 1 Grey Heron  # 2 Grey Heron  # 3 Grey Heron  # 4
Grey Heron  # 5 [breeding] Grey Heron  # 6 [breeding] Grey Heron  # 7 Grey Heron  # 8

Grey Heron # 9

Grey Heron  # 10

Grey Heron  # 11

Grey Heron # 15 [breeding]

Grey Heron  # 16

Grey Heron  # 17

Grey Heron # 18

Grey Heron  # 19

Grey Heron  # 20

Grey Heron [breeding]# 21

Grey Heron  # 22[breeding]

Grey Heron  # 23 [breeding]

Grey Heron # 24

Grey Heron  # 25

Grey Heron  # 26

Grey Heron # 27 [breeding]

Grey Heron  # 28

Grey Heron  # 29 [breeding]

3. Purple Heron   Ardea purpurea manilensis

 Size & diagnostic markings:- 80-90cm. Here I have given a range for it sizes. Sub-adult are small marginally larger than an Egret and the final sizes of this lanky bird again varies within that range. How would I describe a bird purportedly purple in color. Has grayish upper part with a rufous-maroon shoulder patch. The under part, the belly is rufous-maroon. What is prominent is the rufous-chest neck with black lines on the side. The juvenile and sub-adult have varying degree of dark brown combined with wings in warm brown. I suppose in flight the dark maroon and brown projects the bird as purplish.

 Distribution :-  The bird could be found from sub-Sahara, Middle east till eastern China. Down to the Philippines and the Greater Sundas. It is definitely a resident in Malaysia and also a common bird in open country.
 Habitats & preferences:- The bird prefers well vegetated fresh water ponds and waterways. Rice fields among them as the bird is also seen in good numbers. Coastal mudflats is a less preferred habitats but if there are food, the bird would be there.
 In Malaysia, where can the bird be found:- The best place to meet up with the bird would be rice fields. even when the rice stalks are tall, the head of the birds can be seen and very quickly when spooked they will emerge flying. After harvesting, the tall bird will remain exposed in the vacant fields. Another habitat would be disused mining ponds with water Hyacinths. Here the bird would be either standing on top of water surfaces or perched high on the nearby treetops.
 

My personal jottings :-

The Purple heron is a very experienced bird when it comes to the selecting the spots where it forages. Most times even in open fields would not mind the presence of human if they are a safe distance away. Around that spot, the surrounding should be free from intrusions. So easy to spot them with their head and body above the weeds or rice stalks, being far away the bird would usually stop its activity, remain still if observed. Only talking flight, after a long period of stalemate. That's enough time for observation and photography plus good chances of making flying shots. On other occassion, in the situation where there is a thick woods leading to an opening up or small small area, if approached under this circumstances, the bird could be surprised by the relative closeness all of a sudden. This is in the case if the bird is foraging on the ground. Still the bird would stay to assess the situation. But in situation when the bird is already up in the tree top, it would be very comfortable and remain for long time.

Purple Heron nest in huge colony together with other colonies of with Night heron & Egrets. There, it is easy to spot  Purple Herons in various stages of reaching adult hood. Also here, the only opportunity to see the birds living together in close quarters. Otherwise sighting in the field means the bird is always alone without a mate.

 
Record of bird's call:-    and Video:-

Purple Heron # 1

Purple Heron # 2

Purple Heron # 3

Purple Heron  # 4

Purple Heron  # 5

Purple Heron  # 6

Purple Heron # 7

Purple Heron # 8

Purple Heron  # 9 [juv]

Purple Heron # 10 [juv]

Purple Heron # 11

Purple Heron  # 12

Purple Heron  # 16 Purple Heron  # 17 Purple Heron  # 18 Purple Heron  # 19
Purple  Heron  # 20 Purple  Heron  # 21 Purple  Heron  # 22 [juv] Purple  Heron  # 23 [juv]

The Last 3 pictures here show  left  - 2 pictures of the juveniles finding food by themselves. Right - the nest with the parent and the fledglings still under protection of the adults. More pictures of their nest in pix 5&6.

 

Night Heron

4. Black-crowned Night Heron   Nycticorax nycticorax

 Size & diagnostic markings:- 58-65 cm. There brown birds, blue and white birds in clusters in a Heronry. The adult bird is whitish grey on the underpart and dark bluish grey wing patch. The most noticeable feature would be the black color crown, blackish bill with eye lores. During breeding season the wing patch would turn glossy bluish green with the lores and the legs - red. Then the red eyes. When they are not breeding, the bird has close features with that of Pond Heron. The juveniles are more obvious with dark brown and lighter colored crown.

 Distribution :-   The Black-capped Night Heron is about 60 cm long. This bird origin was traced back to many countries in tropical east Africa and Asia. Now the bird is widespread and breeding well in Malaysia. This is a bird of the marshes and swamps where they gather in huge numbers by the hundreds in colonies.
 Habitats & preferences:- This is a bird of marshes and mangrove forest. Most times, the birds stay in colony, together with Egrets. However, they do wander out alone seeking for food in the day. They are so called as they feed in the evening and at night.
 In Malaysia, where can the bird be found:- Heronry are found in huge mining ponds and into marshes. Those heronries found in mining ponds or wetland would likely to have Purple, Grey  Heron and Egrets. While those in marshes with leafy trees are filled with Night-Heron and Egret. This is due to the preferences in nest construction and ease of getting nesting materials, which the smaller birds prefer. Then without an open body of water, the larger herons would not be around. When seeking out the birds, I would say that since we do much lakes, then would be the best place to find Heronry with Night-heron.
 

My personal jottings :-

Both the male and female looks alike though the male may be marginally larger than the female. With a more stocky body combined with shorter legs, neck and bills, they actually look quite different from the "Day" herons. [Pond-heron]

Very seldom seen alone and foraging as they feed mainly in the night as their name implies. They do hunt in the day on the estuary and beside the Little Heron. Both bird almost of similar size and behavioral pattern when hunting. Without careful analyze, it is difficult to make out whether the bird is a Night-heron or a Pond-heron. Only upon taking off, the Pond-Heron has whitish under wing.

These are very noisy birds and in a colony, their numbers are surprisingly large. Their combined calls could be heard long before getting near to the nesting site. Nests are built very close to one another, giving the heronry a sort of Tipsy Tavy look. Oh yes! It not easy to find a non-breeding Night heron in the heronry. So all those present in brown and striped are juvenile and sub adult.

 
Record of bird's call:-    and Video:-

Black-capped Night Heron # 1

Black-capped Night Heron # 2

Juvenile Night Heron # 3

Black-capped Night Heron# 4

Black-capped Night Heron# 5

Juvenile  Night Heron # 6

Juvenile  Night Heron # 7

Juvenile  Night Heron # 8

Black-capped Night Heron # 9

Black-capped Night Heron # 10

Juvenile  Night Heron # 11

Black-capped Night Heron # 12

Black-capped Night Heron # 19

Black-capped Night Heron # 20

fledglings Night Heron # 21

Black-capped Night Heron # 22

breeding Night Heron # 23

Black-capped Night Heron # 24

Juvenile  Night Heron # 25

Black-capped Night Heron # 26

Black-capped Night Heron # 27

5. Malayan Night Heron   Gorsachius melanolophus

 Size & diagnostic markings:- 50 cm. First of all, this is a passage migrant. Only get to see the bird on Chance meeting. It is a stocky bird. The neck is rather thick, bill a bit short when compared with those Herons usually have. There is a black crown then black streaks down the fore neck and the breast. The whole bird may appeared pastel dark lilac but in fact it is more accurately described as chestnut tinged brown.

 Distribution :- This is a bird found in the region stretching from south-west India and the Nicobar Islands. Then another area in South China and the Philippines. In Malaysia, this bird do but seldom passes through as a passage migrant
 Habitats & preferences:- The bird is recorded as preferring swampy habitats and those places with a stream nearby. Quite aptly, this one I encountered over a couple of seasons preferred low scrubs in thick bushes and in a rather wet surrounding. Very secretive and feeds in the night.
 In Malaysia, where can the bird be found:- There is not much information I could gather. So far only one spot I mentioned and that is in Rimba Kiara.
 
 My personal jottings :-

A bird that is hardly seen as it supposedly feeds only at night. The encouraging point is that I have spotted the bird in 2 seasons. Could be the same bird, first seen as an immature and later returning as an adult. Inferring that the bird may have a habit. As a passage migrant, its presence only confined to a couple of days. Surprisingly, this bird I photographed fed in the day time foraging the ground.

 

Record of bird's call :-    and Video:-
 

Malaysian Night Heron # 1

Malaysian Night Heron # 2

Malaysian Night Heron # 3

Malaysian Night Heron# 4

Malaysian Night Heron# 5

Malaysian Night Heron # 6

Malaysian Night Heron # 7

Malaysian Night Heron # 8

Malaysian Night Heron # 9

Malaysian Night Heron # 10

Malaysian Night Heron # 11

Malaysian Night Heron # 12

Malaysian Night Heron # 16

Malaysian Night Heron # 17

Malaysian Night Heron # 18

Malaysian Night Heron # 19

Malaysian Night Heron # 20

Malaysian Night Heron # 21

Malaysian Night Heron # 22

Malaysian Night Heron # 23

Malaysian Night Heron # 24

Malaysian Night Heron # 25

Malaysian Night Heron # 26

Malaysian Night Heron # 27

Pond-Heron

6. Pond Heron  Ardeola spp.

First, a small comparison between the Pond-Heron and Night-Heron as mentioned earlier. Of course, when the 2 birds are placed side by side, the differences are clear. In the field and some distances away under varying perching position and lighting condition, ID determination is far more complicated.
 

There are 3 species of Pond herons that could be sighted in Malaysia, they are all near identical size - 45 cm.

Indian Pond Heron - This is a bird found in Iran, Afghanistan an the Indian sub-continent  Vagrant in Malaysia

Chinese Pond Heron - It is a bird  of India, China and wintering in the south. This is a fairly common bird in Malaysia. I think in Central Peninsula, makes up the majority of Pond-Heron that we get to see.

Javan Pond Heron - Resident in Java, Bali,  Borneo and Philippines -vagrant in Malaysia.

 

All the 3 birds having almost identical features albeit some very minor differences. Very difficult to tell them apart in their normal non-breeding plumages. Likewise, when they take flight the underside of the wings and tail is also white. Take note, when in doubt whether the bird is a Pond heron or Night Heron. Wait till it flies.

Pond herons are most likely seen in open areas with pools of waters, e.g. sewage ponds, fish ponds and padi fields. They could also be among the low trees by the river and in mudflats.

The only way to ID them is when they are in breeding plumage. Pictures in separate tables below would show. But first, this is a series of pictures showing Pond-heron in general.

 

 Pond Heron # 1

 Pond Heron # 2

 Pond Heron # 3

 Pond Heron # 4

 Pond Heron # 5

 Pond Heron # 6

 Pond Heron # 7

 Pond Heron # 8

 Pond Heron # 9

 Pond Heron # 10

 Pond Heron # 11

 Pond Heron # 12

 Pond Heron # 15

 Pond Heron # 16

 Pond Heron # 17

 Pond Heron # 18

 Pond Heron # 19

 Pond Heron # 20

 Pond Heron # 21

 Pond Heron # 22

 Pond Heron # 23

 Pond Heron # 24

 Pond Heron # 25

 Pond Heron # 26

 

7. Chinese Pond Heron - Ardeola bacchus  Breeding

 Size & diagnostic markings:- 45 cm. The head changed into a chest-maroon color, all the way down the neck to the breast, leaving the throat white. The mantle all the way to the back is black while the scapular in graduating shades.

 Distribution :-  This bird's home in North-eastern India,  China and more northerly Ussuriland. It winters in the Andaman, south China, Borneo and Sumatra. But we have a large population of Pond Herons in Malaysia at all times.
 Habitats & preferences:- This bird prefers freshwater pools and sometimes coastal mudflats.
 In Malaysia, where can the bird be found:- I find Pond Heron most in oxidation ponds and rice fields.
 

My personal jottings :-

Have to wait till the birds are in breeding plumage to ascertain its ID, when the time came, all that I got was one species of bird the Chinese Pond Heron. A very high percentage that most of the Pond-Heron in Peninsula Malaysia are Chinese Pond-Heron. During the breeding season at the end of the first quarter of the year, both Chinese and Javan were in the same rice field. Having said that, only on rare occasions that a Javan Pond Heron was seen during those long awaited breeding season. In contrast, almost all the Chinese Pond Heron seen in rice fields were in breeding plumage simultaneously. There would be the rare one or two which rare not. Then another observation is that those Chinese Pond-Herons spotted in oxidation ponds had a lower percentage in breeding plumage, perhaps only a fraction

Record of earlier observations that the Chinese Pond Heron wintering here in Malaysia, part of the Andaman-Sumatra circuit, may not be that true. Many birds by now have in fact for a long time now were resident locally.

 The frequency of sightings the Indian Pond Herons in the northern part of the Peninsula were high but the birds in isolated numbers.

I have got here a couple of pictures - showing the various stages of mottling. Then, further down those birds in full breeding plumage. The Chinese Pond-Heron.

 
Record of bird's call :-    and Video:-

Chinese Pond Heron # 1

Chinese Pond Heron # 2

Chinese Pond Heron # 3

Chinese Pond Heron # 4

Chinese Pond Heron # 5

Chinese Pond Heron # 6

Chinese Pond Heron # 7

Chinese Pond Heron # 8

Chinese Pond Heron # 9

Chinese Pond Heron # 10

Chinese Pond Heron # 11

Chinese Pond Heron # 12

Chinese Pond Heron # 15

Chinese Pond Heron # 16

Chinese Pond Heron # 17

Chinese Pond Heron # 18

Chinese Pond Heron # 19

Chinese Pond Heron # 20

Chinese Pond Heron # 21

Chinese Pond Heron # 22

Chinese Pond Heron # 23

Chinese Pond Heron # 24

Chinese Pond Heron # 25

Chinese Pond Heron # 26

8. Javan Pond Heron - Ardeola speciosa  Breeding

 Size & diagnostic markings:- 45 cm. The bird is the best example where it is so difficult to be distinguished from other Pond Heron in their normal plumage. Once with breeding plumage, could immediately set it apart. Pale brownish to creamy white all the way from the neck up to the head. Then down to the breast gets richer color of rufous-orange. back is dark brown with white under part. head plume is white.

 Distribution :-  This bird is native in Java, Bali, up north to south east Borneo, Lesser Sundas, Sulawesi and the Philippines. Also common in Central Thailand and Cambodia. Vagrant in Malaysia.
 Habitats & preferences:- So far I have seen it on the Rice fields and also waterways near to the coast. But in the mudflats.
 In Malaysia, where can the bird be found:- My knowledge through limited encounters cannot prompt to speculate where to find the bird
 

My personal jottings :-

To date, I could afford this little amount of pictures for the Javan Pond Heron in breeding plumage. The Javan Pond Heron sighted was in isolation the only one of its kind. At other times, the bird was found by itself without any other Pond heron present. Hopefully next season will bring me some more luck.

 
Example of bird's call :-    and Video:-

Javan Pond Heron # 1

Javan Pond Heron # 2

Javan Pond Heron # 3

Javan Pond Heron  # 4

Javan Pond Heron  # 5

Javan Pond Heron  # 6

Javan Pond Heron # 7

Javan Pond Heron # 8

Javan Pond Heron  # 9

Javan Pond Heron # 10

Javan Pond Heron # 11

Javan Pond Heron  # 12

Javan Pond Heron # 16

Javan Pond Heron  # 17

Javan Pond Heron  # 18

Javan Pond Heron # 19

Javan Pond Heron  # 20

Javan Pond Heron  # 21

9. Indian Pond Heron - Ardeola grayii  Breeding

 Size & diagnostic markings:- 45 cm. Again with normal plumage the bird is indistinguishable with other Pond Herons. In breeding plumage. The head, neck and breast in uniform warm brownish tone. Head plume and throat-  white. Upper part, mantle to scapular dark brown to maroon fading off at the tip of wings. Under body - white as well.

 Distribution :- Resident in Iran, Afghanistan and the Indian sub-continent. Winter visitor to South Thailand and northern Malaysia
 Habitats & preferences:- Freshwater ponds and pools near to the coastal region.
 In Malaysia, where can the bird be found:- This section appears as a record as I do not have experience with this birds at all. Information confined to those received over the internet.
 

My personal jottings :-

In the previous version of this page, I didn't have this species of Indian Pond Heron listed. I was thinking then, their sighting was an isolated incident and a stray could have flown into Malaysia to deserve a record. Then a few years ago, there were reported sightings of the birds seen within the compound of the Penang Airport. A prohibited area. Then, in last couple of years, there were consistent sightings of birds in the mudflat followed by isolated sighting of birds in the ricefields. Also at the inland lake, further south down to Ipoh. So this trend of breeding Indian Pond Heron is here to stay. I have not gone over to meet up with the bird during that narrow corridor of time. My style is that I am using pictures taken by myself for this site. Looks like, I need to break this practice to borrow pictures from my friend this time. It would be more pleasing to myself if I could take the page to a higher level of completion, rather just displaying pictures that I collected.

 

To conclude this page on Herons, I must say that Herons, particularly the Pond heron with their breeding plumage is interesting. There is only a small window of time each year, to do all the following up for ID and picture taking.

A good portion of the page on Heron is taken up by the Malayan Night Herons, which is a bird that is nearly impossible to follow. Just simply "not there" for us to watch or doing any follow up visit to learn more about them.

Against that background of obstacles in preparing this page, i think that when the name Hero is mentioned, it is no surprise that most people would think of the Purple, Grey and Little Herons. And also in this same order, that the birders are familiar with. Now I hope with more awareness, I am included, we should spend more time to ponder over the facts that we know so little about this group of birds.