My Favorite Florida Birds, The Ibises
Article and Images by Don ChamberlainOne of the most commonly encountered birds that I see while photographing birds in Florida are White and Glossy Ibises. They can be seen wading and feeding individually, in small groups with other ibises, and/or in mixed groups with other ibises, egrets, herons, spoonbills, etc.
Glossy ibises are less ubiquitous and photographing them is much more of a challenge. They are in constant motion, walking and probing their decurved beaks into shallow water as they seek an elusive crab or crayfish.
Taxonomically White Ibises (Eudocimus albus) are part of the avian Order Ciconiiformes along with herons, bitterns, storks, spoonbills, and flamingoes. As members of the family Threskiornithidae, they share family traits with the spoonbills. There are twenty-six genera of ibises found worldwide with just four native to the Western Hemisphere. The three species found in the United States are the American White Ibis (Eudocimus albus), the Glossy Ibis (Plegardis falcinellus), and the White-faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi).
In the United States white ibises and glossy ibises are found along the coastal areas of the Southeast (primarily along the coasts of Florida, Louisiana, and Texas). The white-faced ibis is usually found west of the Mississippi River.
The adult American White Ibis is a medium sized wading bird about twenty-four inches tall. It has predominantly white plumage with black wing tips (often hidden unless in flight). It has a long, orange down-curved bill and orange legs. The irises of the eye are clear but often reflect the sky and appear blue. The immature white ibis has a body covered with patches of brown and white and legs are more pinkish.
The Glossy Ibis is of a size similar to the White Ibis, but has patches of chestnut brown mixes in with its white body feathers. Often, in sunlight, a fluorescent greenish sheen appears on the feather surface of the wings or body. This green sheen is much more pronounced while the bird is in flight. A border of white outlines the face of the glossy ibis. The bill and legs are usually chestnut brown and the eyes are brown.
Both types of ibises feed in mudflats or shallow coastal or inland marshes, freshwater swamps and flood lands. They feed on crayfish and other crustaceans (90% of their diet), aquatic insects, small fish, and other aquatic life forms. Their mode of feeding is to walk while thrusting their slightly-opened bills deep into the substrate changing directions as they walk. When receptors in their sensitive bills feel vibrations from the prey, the bill snaps shuts and the prey is captured. Generally, the eyes are of little use while feeding.
They can be found feeding along, in small groups of other ibises or within larger groups of wading birds.
During the breeding season both bill and legs of the white ibis turn scarlet red. In males, a red sac may grow beneath its lower jaw.
During the breeding season, male ibises will select a breeding territory, which it will defend against invaders. Territory defense includes such threat displays as horizontal posturing, neck extension, opened bill, erected feathers and maybe inflation of the red throat sac.
When females move into his territory, he will begin a courtship behavior to attract a mate. This behavior includes snapping the bill, head bobbing or head rolling, display preening, and feather ruffling. If impressed, the female may approach cautiously in a crouched posture with feathers compressed and smooth.
If his romantic advances are successful the male will signal acceptance by opening his bill, honking softly, and slowly raise and lower his head. Entwining of the necks is attempted and copulation occurs over the next two weeks.
As is the case with many wading birds, females do most of the nest construction. The male will collect twigs and branches for the nest, deliver them to the nest site, and present them to the female for nest assembly.
Upon completion of the nest, three or four pale blue speckled eggs are laid in the nest. Incubation begins when all eggs are laid. Eggs hatch in about three weeks.
Young white ibises are ibis-like, but with sparsely distributed dark feathers and a beak much shorter than the adults. During the early stages of growth, the young feed by inserting these shortened bills into the bill of the parent to ingest regurgitated prey. The longer beak would make this feeding behavior by the young impossible.
After about three weeks, the young are able to venture from the nest and are capable of flight after an additional two weeks.
During times of ancient Egyptian dominance in Northern Africa, the ibis was recognized as the spirit of learning and wisdom. During the 5th century B.C. killing an ibis was a crime punishable by death.
At one point in Egyptian history (700–30 B.C.) Ibis were raised and sold to religious pilgrims wishing to honor Thoth, the Egyptian moon god. In certain religious rites, ibises and their eggs were sacrificed, mummified, and placed into enormous cemeteries intended to honor Thoth.
Three types of ibis appear in the works of ancient Egyptians: the sacred ibis (which represented learning and wisdom), the glossy ibis (which represented sorrow, grief, and “uncleanliness”), and Waldrapp Ibises (which were believed to represent excellence, glory, honor, and virtue).
In Asia Minor and Turkey, the ibis was once considered a harbinger or spring and was believed to represent the souls of their ancestors. Some Turkish stories also suggest that the Waldrapp Ibis lead Noah and his sons from Mount Ararat to the valley below where they made their home.
Certain versions of the Bible list ibis among the “birds of abomination” which are unfit for human consumption; however, is some cultures, ibises have been captured and eaten almost to the point of extinction.
My Favorite Places to Find Ibises:
While the American White Ibis is found in many places throughout Florida and the southeastern part of the United States my favorite places to find them include Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, and the Everglades National Park. In Merritt Island they are often seen feeding along Black Point Wildlife Drive, along BioLab Road, and around Peacock Pocket Road. Glossy ibises are often found feeding along these roads as well.
Many of my ibis “close up” shots have been taken while walking along Anhinga Trail in the Everglades. Birds feeding along this trail seem very unaffected by people and will often walk to within three feet while feeding in the grass along the canal. They can also be seen in many places while driving along Flamingo road. At EcoPond near Flamingo itself, ibises often fly in to roost in the mangroves and bushes on the island in EcoPond as sundown approaches.
In Ding Darling again they are often encountered while driving the Wildlife Drive through the refuge. One of my most exciting memories of ibis observation occurred about three miles along the Wildlife Drive when I encountered a White Ibis feeding on a mud flat. The bird soon captured an eel (or small snake) whose length exceeded the length of it beak. For fifteen minutes, I observed the struggle as the bird attempted to determine how best to subdue and swallow this squirming tidbit. Once successful, the routine of walking and probing continued.