January 8, 2020 ~ These chilly winter months are the best time to practice bird identification and photography along the Texas Gulf Coast. The heavy marsh growth has typically been frost-nipped and is a little easier to see through, and the temps are chillier, discouraging our mosquitoes and biting flies just a bit. I headed out to Brazos Bend State Park, southwest of Houston, and found a bird I hadn’t seen before, the White-faced Ibis. Or maybe it is the Glossy Ibis?
White-faced Ibis and Glossy Ibis have overlapping ranges, with the White-faced being much more common. White-faced Ibis get their name from the bright white outline that rings their face in breeding plumage.
If you search google images for “Glossy vs White-faced Ibis” you will find a wealth of discussion and analysis of images. The late juvenile and non-breeding adult birds of both species look very similar, and to stir up controversy even more, Glossy Ibis and White-faced Ibis are hybridizing. Two helpful sources were Mia McPherson, from On the Wing Photography, and Nicholas Lund, from Audubon.
Well, I had no doubt I was looking at an Ibis. The long downward curving beak, the long legs and sturdy body with rounded feathers, and an eye surrounded by bare skin, show this is cousin to the White Ibis, which is very common here.
The consensus on non-breeding plumage differences seems to be:
- Red eye (but younger birds have a black eye)
- Slightly lighter legs
- Gray beak
- Brown and white evenly mottled head and neck
- Black, or very dark, eye
- Black legs
- Darker beak
- Dark brown head and neck with some white streaking on front of neck
Based on all that, I believe I have some White-faced Ibis in non-breeding plumage to show you.
I photographed four birds, all feeding together at 40 Acre Lake in the park. The bright afternoon sunlight blazed off this one’s raised wings, and reflected from the water below onto his neck. Bright sunlight creates all kinds of misleading highlights, shadows and lines, but we love it for the detail it reveals.
Many herons use a behavior called shadowing, holding their wings half-raised while feeding to remove glare from the surface of the water, allowing them to see fish below. But the Ibis isn’t trying to catch fish. From the frames before and after this, I believe he was warning off a Snowy Egret who had encroached on his little bit of open water.
Ibis feed by scooping their decurved beak from side-to-side along the bottom surface of the waterway, bringing up small bugs and water critters. Here, he had just pulled his head up from very deep foraging, and the water sheeted off his head and beak. A cloud passed over the sun, allowing us to see the hints of teal and turquoise in his feathers.
And here we are in the sun again. This bird has raised his foot to take a careful step forward, and like many wading water birds, has really long toes. This isn’t a great photo (his foot, head and bill are not focused), but I like the iridescent copper color in his back feathers.
Here’s one more, showing his bright eye (looking more brown than red in the late afternoon sunlight). He’s just settling himself after a big fluff-up. Notice how the camera lens is almost the same elevation as his eye. I’ve shortened my tripod legs and half-squatted in order to get into this very personal stare-down.
I can’t wait to see these birds in the spring, in their breeding plumage, when their brown head, neck and chest feathers will be replaced by maroon, their lores (skin around the eyes) and legs will be fuchsia, and their white face ring will appear.