Thursday, May 21, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The glossy ibis – a rare visitor to Niagara County

On Sunday afternoon I took The Little One on one of her expeditions to catch frogs at our ponds. While there, a gangly looking, mid-sized bird flew in from a distance and I assumed it was one of the cormorants which have been pillaging our waters.

I was planning on shooing the bird away, but as it got closer I noticed the different flight pattern and a tell-tale long and curved beak. It was not a cormorant. It was an ibis!

Something I always assumed to be tropical in nature, it’s a bird I certainly never expected to see in Niagara County and one I hope to see again soon.

Where ibises normally live

The glossy ibis is one of the most widespread birds in the world. Nesting populations can be found on every continent except Antarctica. They prefer warmer climes and coastal waters but will also thrive in large marshes and estuaries.

Up until 1900, their US population was found only in Florida and along the Gulf Coast and they were even considered to be quite rare. But, over the course of the twentieth century they moved northward and can now be found breeding in good numbers along the entire Eastern seaboard north to Maine.

It is rare that they make it very far inland in the States north of Florida, although a handful of the birds are spotted in the Iroquois Wildlife Refuge every year.

Visiting smaller ponds in Gasport? That’s almost unheard of.

What they look like

While extremely rare in the area, the occasional glossy ibis can be seen in 
If you’ve ever been to Florida, chances are good that you’ve seen a glossy ibis. They are fair-sized wading birds, approaching 2 feet in length. Their bodies are a dark chestnut color while their wings are a glossy, reflective green (hence its first name – “glossy”). They appear black from a distance.

Their beaks set them apart from other shorebirds and heron-like birds. They are long and curved downward. In flight, they have a 3-foot wingspan, which is fairly impressive (about half that of the common turkey vulture).

Their behavior 

An ibis will use its ridiculously long beak to probe water and shoreline mud in search of its prey. Ibises love their shellfish. Coastal birds will feast on fiddler grabs while inland ibises prefer crayfish and mollusks. In their absence they will consume water insects by the dozens, tadpoles, frogs and even snakes – glossy ibises have even been known to savor the poisonous water moccasin.

The bird unleashes a rather unattractive call – sometimes it grunts, sometimes it growls.

Keep your eyes peeled

The visitor to Gasport was entirely unexpected and is a real attention grabber. Locally, ibises are much harder to view than the snowy owls which make rare winter irruptions here and excite even the most experienced birdwatchers. I was excited when I saw it and still remain so these few days later.

Most local birders who don’t travel much won’t have the bird on their life list, and almost all birders are unlikely have to seen one in this county.

Even while being nomadic, this ibis – and maybe others that joined it -- have plenty of good habitat to choose from locally: in the past 20 years, ponds have become pretty common in the area; some of the local golf courses sport decently sized ponds; local marshes and swamps still have water in them; and the Hartland Swamp is living up to its name. I wouldn’t be surprised if others see this bird in the coming days and maybe even coming weeks. Let’s hope he’s here to stay and brought some friends.

So, my advice to local birdwatchers in Hartland and the northern halves of Royalton and Lockport is this: Keep your eyes peeled -- and your binoculars handy. Don’t assume that every wading or roosting bird near your pond is “just” a heron. It might be the glossy ibis that I was fortunate enough to see. It’s a rare sight on the Niagara Frontier and one that you need to see and appreciate.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he welcomes ibises but not cormorants to his ponds. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 21 May 2015 East Niagara Post

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