Four years ago, I was privileged to travel to Honduras for my first experience in Central American birding, and what an experience it was! Whenever I travel to a new destination I try to keep my expectations very low (there is never a guarantee to see a specific bird, and I don’t want to be disappointed), but this week’s featured bird is one I desperately hoped to see – the crazy and kooky boat-billed heron.
Name: Boat-Billed Heron
Scientific Name: Cochlearius cochlearius
Scientific Family: Ardeidae (Herons)
Habitat: These tropical herons prefer dense swampy or bog-like areas with thick vegetation and slow-moving water, such as forest streams, oxbow lakes, estuaries, lagoons and alongside broad rivers. Mangrove swamps are preferred because the trees are used for roosting and nesting.
Range: Boat-billed herons are widespread from coastal Mexico through the Yucatan Peninsula, Central America and into Brazil and northeastern Argentina. These birds do not migrate, and can be found in their preferred habitats year-round.
At first glance, boat-billed herons look superficially like black-crowned night-herons, but are larger and stockier, with an even more pronounced hunch to their posture. The crown and nape are dark gray-black with a long rear crest, while the forehead and throat are a dirty, smudged white. The back is black, while the wings are medium-gray and the underparts are rusty-tan or medium brown, though there is black on the flanks. The legs and feet are yellowish. These birds have very large, dark eyes, which help them have superior vision in densely shaded habitats as well as at crepuscular periods, the dim twilight hours around sunset and dawn when they are most active.
Of course, this bird’s most distinctive feature is its large, broad bill. A ridge that runs along the center of the bill gives it the appearance of an overturned boat keel, hence the name “boatbill” for these birds. The bill is blackish-gray above and paler, dirty yellow below. These birds use their bills for expert fishing as they stalk slowly through shallow water lunging at prey to scoop it up for feeding. Boat-billed herons eat a wide variety of aquatic prey, including shrimp, amphibians, fish and insects.
While these birds are most active after dark, they can often be spotted during the day as they roost in vegetation near suitable water sources. They can be somewhat gregarious and may be seen roosting in large groups. Because they can be sensitive to disturbances, however, it is important that birders keep their distance and observe the birds carefully and quietly so as not to cause undue stress.
So, was I able to add the boat-billed heron to my life list when I visited Honduras? Indeed, I was lucky to do so! One part of the trip included a tour to Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge and birding by boat on the shallow canals and estuary waters throughout the refuge, which allowed for a close and personal view of a boat-billed heron as it rested. It was well aware of my presence but not stressed by the boat, and what a thrill it was to see such a distinctive bird (and its oh-so-distinctive bill). May we all have such amazing birding experiences in our lives!