7 Herons In Alaska (ID, Photos, Calls, Recent Rare Species)

Gray Heron
Only 1 of the 17 Species of Herons that are regularly occurring in North America has been spotted in Alaska. There are an additional 10 that are rare or accidental. This guide will help you identify and learn more about these long-legged birds.

Herons are water-loving birds found in saltwater, freshwater, or even peering into your backyard pond for a quick snack.

However many of your fish herons eat, they are protected, so a net is your best bet if you’re having trouble.

Herons often nest in large colonies called heronries but tend to hunt alone by standing perfectly still and waiting or by dashing about to stir up the prey.

There are a surprising number of names for a group of herons, and these include “rookery”, “battery”, “hedge”, “siege”, “pose”, and “scattering” of herons, to name a few!

If you enjoy spotting waterbirds in Alaska, you should also find out more about the ducks, swans, or pelicans you can spot here.

11 Species Of Heron In Alaska

1. Great Blue Heron

great blue heron

Great Blue Herons are spotted all year in southern Alaska but they are most common from September to December. They are recorded in 1% of summer checklists and 4% of winter checklists submitted by bird watchers for the state.

Great Blue Herons are very large, majestic birds that are the largest heron native to North America.

They have a white face with a black crest or plume that extends from the front of their eyes to the back of their heads. Their bills are yellow-orangish.

They have long gray necks with black and white streaking in the front, grayish-blue bodies, and long gray legs. 

  • Ardea herodias
  • Length: 46 – 52 in (117 – 132 cm)
  • Weight: 128 oz (3628 g)
  • Wingspan: 77 – 82 in (196 – 208 cm)

Great Blue Herons remain in most US states all year, but those that breed in the Mid-West and Canada migrate south.

The Great Blue Heron has a white morph subspecies called the Great White Heron in Florida.

You can find Great Blue Herons in many wetland environments. They can be present in fresh and saltwater marshes, mangrove swamps, flooded marshes, lake edges, or shorelines.

Great Blue Herons’ main diet consists of fish, frogs, salamanders, shrimps, crabs, dragonflies, grasshoppers, and other aquatic insects.

They capture their prey when wading or standing in water. They may also hover over water, dive into the water, jump feet-first from perches, or float on the water’s surface. 

Great Blue Heron Call:

Nests of Great Blue Herons are found in colonies, high up in trees close to water. The nests are made with twigs and sticks lined with softer material.

Since Great Blue Herons reuse their nests, they may repair and add more to the nests over time, growing them in size.

The female then lays two to seven eggs. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs for around four weeks. 

Fun Fact: Great Blue Herons defend their feeding territory with dramatic wing outstretched displays, with their heads thrown back.

2. Great Egret

Great Egret (Ardea alba)

Great Egrets are considered rare or accidental species in Alaska but there has been a recent sighting around Atka Island in 2022.

Great Egrets are at their best during the breeding season when males have neon green facial skin and long, wispy feathers (aigrettes) extending from their backs to their tails, which they show off during courtship, like how a peacock flares out its tail.  

They are large, all-white herons, which is why they’re often called Great White Herons. They are also called common egrets. These large birds are white, with dagger-like, long, bright yellow bills and long, black legs and feet.

Non-breeding males, females, and juveniles look alike. 

  • Ardea alba
  • Length: 37 – 41 in (94 – 104cm)
  • Weight: 59.96 oz (1699 g)
  • Wingspan: 54 – 55 in (137 – 140 cm)

Great Egrets have a vast range around the world. Those in the southern and coastal US states remain all year, but those more inland and in Canada migrate south.

You can find Great Egrets in freshwater and saltwater marshes and tidal flats, but also fish ponds.

The diet of Great Egrets consists mainly of fish, frogs, small mammals, crustaceans, and insects. You will see Great Egrets standing motionless on the water, waiting and scouting their prey, and then they strike and spear it with their long bills. 

Great Egret Calls:

Nests of Great Egrets are found in colonies. They are usually placed high up in trees, preferably on islands, to protect the nests from predators like raccoons.

They are made of sticks, twigs, and stems of marsh plants. The females lay up to six eggs, and incubation by both parents is done for around twenty-five days. 

Fun Fact: The Great Egret was almost hunted to extinction because of their long white feathers (aigrettes) that were mainly used to decorate ladies’ hats. 

3. American Bittern

American bittern. Botaurus lentiginosus

American Bitterns are extremely rare in Alaska and are considered accidental species in the state. They were last spotted around Barnes Lake in 2020.

If you’re lucky, you will hear the weird watery boom calls in the spring of the American Bittern long before you see them. Check them out below…

American Bitterns are chunky, medium-sized, solitary birds belonging to the Heron family.

They look like the reeds they hide in because of their brown striped and mottled patterning and their ability to stay motionless among the reeds with their head tilted up.

Their eyes are yellow but turn orange during courtship, and they have short legs. 

  • Botaurus lentiginosus
  • Length: 23 in (58 cm) 
  • Weight: 25.6 oz (726 g)
  • Wingspan: 42 – 50 in (107 – 127 cm)

American Bitterns breed in Canada and northern US states before migrating to the Gulf Coast and Mexico.

You can find American Bitterns almost exclusively in shallow, freshwater marshes and wetlands with tall reeds. 

Train your eyes on the edges of lakes and ponds amid the coarse vegetation to find them.

The diet of American Bitterns is fish, crustaceans, insects, amphibians, and small mammals. They forage stealthily amongst the reeds, staying still and silent, waiting for their prey to come closer, and then dart forward quickly to capture them in their bills.

American Bittern Calls: Listen to their strange watery boom calls. It is one of the weirdest bird calls.

Nests of American Bitterns can be found on the water, concealed among coarse vegetation. Females choose the nest site and build it themselves with available reeds, sedges, cattails, and other vegetation. 

They lay up to seven eggs which are incubated for around twenty-six days. The chicks, when hatched, are fed by the females through regurgitation directly into their beaks. In two weeks, they leave the nest and are fully-fledged in six to seven weeks. 

Fun Fact: American Bitterns point upwards and sway gently from side to side, just like the reeds that hide them to conceal themselves.

4. Black-crowned Night-Heron

Black-crowned night heron

Black-crowned Night-Herons are accidental species in Alaska. They are extremely rare in the state and were last spotted around Adak Island in 2016.

Black-crowned Night-Herons, or simply Night Heron, do not fit the typical description of the heron family. It is quite stocky and has a shorter bill, neck, and legs. 

Adult Black-crowned Night-herons have black caps that extend from a white line above their black bills.

Their eyes are red while the lores (area in front of the eye, towards the bill) are green-blue. They are white underneath and darker on the back. Their legs and feet are yellow. 

During the breeding season, the black coloring of the head and back turns to a glossy blue-green, and two or three white feathers appear on the crown. The lores also turn black, and the legs and feet become red or pink.  

Juveniles are a dull grayish-brown overall with some streaking and spotting.

  • Nycticorax nycticorax
  • Length: 25 – 28 in (64 – 71 cm)
  • Weight: 38.8 oz (1100 g)
  • Wingspan: 44 – 45 in (112 – 114 cm)

Black-crowned Night-herons have a vast range around the world. In North America, they breed in the US and Canada before migrating south. Some remain all year along the coasts.

You can find Black-crowned Night-herons in wetland habitats like shallow freshwater or brackish rivers. They are also used to artificial habitats like reservoirs, canals, and fish ponds. 

Black-crowned Night-herons are night-feeders and feed on anything they can find, such as crayfish and fish and even turtles or worms.

Black-crowned Night Heron Call:

Nests of Black-crowned Night-herons are started by the males in preparation for choosing their mates and are usually built in bushes or trees.

The female will then lay up to seven eggs, laid at 2-day intervals. Both parents start to incubate the eggs as soon as they’re laid for about twenty-four days. The parents will take care of their young for about 3 weeks.

Fun Fact: A colony of Black-crowned Night-herons has spent their summers at the National Zoo in Washington DC, for more than a century. 

5. Cattle Egret

Cattle Egret

Cattle Egrets are considered accidental species in Alaska, and according to records, they were last spotted around Petersburg in 2014.

Cattle Egrets have a smart way of catching their food…they stand on the backs of cattle, so when the cattle move and disturb the ground, they catch the disturbed prey.

Cattle Egrets are small, short-necked egrets with white bodies and pale orange-brown patches on their heads, necks, and backs.

Their irises and facial skin are yellow. They have short, yellow bills and short greenish-black legs. Males and females look similar.

Cattle Egret change color throughout the year and they become brighter, especially on legs and face during the breeding season.

During the breeding season, their pale orange patches become darker orange. Their bills, legs, and irises become bright red, and facial skin (lores) turn pinkish-red at the height of their courting. 

  • Bubulcus ibis
  • Length: 19 – 21 in (48 – 53 cm)
  • Weight: 17.98 oz (510 g)
  • Wingspan: 36 – 38 in (91 – 97 cm)

Cattle Egrets have a vast range around the world, but within North America, those in the south in Mexico, the Gulf Coast, and southwestern US states remain all year.

However, those that breed further north, mainly in eastern US states, migrate south after breeding.

You can find Cattle Egrets in native grasslands, pastures, crop fields, and rice fields, especially where there is hoofed livestock. 

While they prefer to stay on land and on top of cattle, they do venture into the edges of aquatic environments, like riverbanks, ponds, and shallow marshes. They may also be spotted in golf courses, lawns, athletic fields, dumps, and parks.

Cattle Egrets’ diet is insects, mostly grasshoppers, crickets, flies, beetles, and moths. They also eat spiders, frogs, small snakes, lizards, earthworms, and fish.

Cattle Egret Calls:

Nests of Cattle Egrets are made from sticks and reeds and are usually built in colonies in woodlands near lakes or rivers, in swamps, or on small islands.

The female lays up to nine eggs which they incubate for about twenty-five days. It takes about forty-five days for the young to grow, fledge and become fully independent from their parents. 

Fun Fact: The Cattle Egret’s eyes have adapted to foraging on land by having binocular vision for judging distance to catch prey on land rather than correcting for light refraction when feeding in water.

6. Gray Heron

Gray Heron

Gray Herons are considered rare or accidental species in Alaska but they were recently spotted around Buldir Island in 2022.

The Gray Heron is a large, wading bird called such because of its grayish feathers – ash-grey on top and grayish-white on the bottom. 

Its head is white and black, and its neck is white with long feathers down its chest. Its bill is long and pinkish-yellow. Its legs are long and brown. 

Males and females look alike, but females are generally smaller. Juveniles have dull grey heads, dark grey crowns, and overall grey coloring. 

Gray Herons also look similar to the Great Blue Herons, except that Great Blue Herons are larger and have brown flanks and thighs.

  • Ardea cinerea
  • Length: 33 – 40 in (84 – 102 cm)
  • Weight: 35.2 – 73.6 oz (997 – 2085 g)
  • Wingspan: 61 – 77 in (155 – 195 cm)

Gray Herons’ usual range is Europe, Asia, and Africa, but they have been vagrants into North America more regularly.

You can find Gray Herons anywhere with water and fish, such as lakes, reservoirs, small and large rivers, marshes, ponds, flooded areas, coastal lagoons, estuaries, and the seashore. 

Gray herons are considered apex predators because of their large size and the speed with which they capture prey in the water.

They can be very still as they observe their prey, and when they’re within striking distance, they strike accurately and skillfully with their long, strong bills. 

Bigger prey is stabbed by the bill and beaten into submission on land. 

Sometimes, they drown or suffocate their prey or break their necks before being eaten whole (sounds gruesome!). 

Gray Heron Calls:

Nests of Gray Herons are usually situated high up in trees and close to water. They reuse their nests year after year, so they tend to grow big in size with the addition of more materials.

Males are in charge of finding the nesting material while females build the nests. The females then lay three to five eggs which the parents take turns incubating for about twenty-six days. When they hatch, parents regurgitate fish to feed them. 

Fun Fact: It’s easy to distinguish Gray Herons in flight because they fly with their heads pulled back and their long necks retracted into an S-shape. Other herons fly with their necks extended. 

7. Chinese Pond-Heron

Chinese pond heron (Ardeola bacchus).

Chinese Pond-Herons are extremely rare in Alaska and are considered accidental species in the state. They were last spotted around Gambell in 2011.

Nonbreeding adults have golden-brown streaked heads, yellow eyes and lores (area in front of the eye towards the bill), olive-brown backs, white bellies, and yellow legs. 

Breeding Male Chinese Pond Herons are easily identifiable because of their unique coloring. Their heads, throats, and chest are wine-red with a long, thin crest extending from the back of the head to the base of the nape. 

  • Ardeola bacchus
  • Length: 16 – 20 in (40 – 50 cm)
  • Weight: 10.8 – 12 oz (306 – 340 g) 
  • Wingspan: 30 – 40 in (80 – 100 cm)

Chinese Pond Heron belongs to the Pond Heron family from East Asia, but they are recognized as vagrants in North America.

You can find Chinese Pond Herons in rice fields and shallow aquatic wetlands like marshes, swamps, mangroves, streams, and tidal pools. 

Chinese Pond Herons usually eat fish, insects, crustaceans, frogs, and other small aquatic creatures. They forage for food by standing still and striking when prey comes their way. They can also walk very slowly and pick up their food from the ground.

Chinese Pond Heron Call:

Nests of Chinese Pond Herons are built in colonies and placed high at the top of trees. They are made of small sticks lined with leaves and grass.

The female lays three to six eggs, and both parents incubate them for about twenty days. 

Fun Fact: The first recorded occurrence of this bird in the United States was on Saint Paul Island, Alaska, in August 1997.

How Frequently Herons Are Spotted In Alaska In Summer And Winter

Checklists are a great resource to find out which birds are commonly spotted in your state. These lists show which herons are most frequently recorded on checklists on ebird in summer and winter in Alaska.

Herons in Alaska in summer:

Great Blue Heron 1.5%
Great Egret <0.1%
American Bittern <0.1%
Black-crowned Night-Heron <0.1%
Gray Heron <0.1%
Green Heron <0.1%
Snowy Egret <0.1%
Tricolored Heron <0.1%
Little Egret <0.1%
Chinese Pond-Heron <0.1%

Herons in Alaska in winter:

Great Blue Heron 4.2%
Great Egret <0.1%