Made to Wade: All About Wading Birds

Updated: Jan. 12, 2022

Elegant and graceful, wading birds capture artists' imaginations. Here are interesting facts and gorgeous photos of wading birds.

Great blue heron standing in water
Courtesy Dena Peckham
Great blue heron standing in water

Meet the Wading Birds

Nature enthusiasts everywhere adore graceful, gorgeous wading birds. Just think about the amount of bird home decor featuring cranes! But while you might have a painting of an egret or heron on your wall, there’s plenty you don’t know about these photogenic fliers.

Here, we break down some fascinating facts about the long-legged birds that call the water’s edge home. Plus, Birds & Blooms readers share stories and photos of encounters with these graceful creatures.

251927289 1 Joe Bob  Hall Bnb Bypc2020
Courtesy Joe Bob Hall
Snowy egret

What Do Wading Birds Look Like?

Wading birds have an anatomy quite dissimilar from the cheery, tiny songbirds that flit about your backyard. Generally, you might think of them as “long” birds; they have long legs, long necks and even lengthy beaks. Bitterns, cranes, egrets, flamingos, herons, ibises, limpkins, rails, spoonbills and storks are all considered wading birds.

While wading birds wouldn’t be much good at landing on a bird feeder, these fliers are designed perfectly for what they need to do. Their pointed beaks allow them to strike at or pick up food. High-density light receptors in their eyes, called rods, allow some waders to hunt day or night. Their long, S-shaped necks work like a spring to strike quickly, which they need to do to catch their fast-moving prey.

Tall legs keep the majority of their body feathers dry while the bird stands in deep water or mud. Spread-out toes function like snowshoes to keep the birds from sinking into muck.

Learn about 6 bird beak types and how birds use them to eat.

249701554 1 David Malone Bnb Bypc2020
Courtesy David Malone
Great blue heron catching a fish

What Do Wading Birds Eat?

You probably won’t find a wading bird in your backyard unless you live next to a body of water. They don’t usually eat birdseed or other typical songbird offerings, instead preferring treats like crustaceans, fish, frogs, insects, mollusks, reptiles and even small mammals.

252270272 1 Kelly Bilu Bnb Bypc2020, great egret, wading bird
Courtesy Kelly Bilu

Great Egret Nest

“I found this great egret in Morro Bay, California. I watched as it stole nesting material from cormorants and delicately balanced each piece just so. The nest was 30 feet up and constructed in a eucalyptus tree,” Kelly Bilu says. Learn more about the nests and courtship rituals of great egrets.

Bnbugc Debbie Parker, white ibis, wading bird
Courtesy Debbie Parker

White Ibis

“While visiting West Palm Beach in Florida, I got to see many white ibises, which are as common as sparrows there. I enjoy photographing them, especially in flight,” Debbie Parker says. Discover the most commonly sighted bird in every state.

Bnbbyc19 Lisa Young, green heron, wading bird
Courtesy Lisa Young

Green Heron in the Sun

“Green herons are some of my favorite birds to photograph because they are so skittish. I took this photo in the early morning while the bird was content to sit in the rising sun, and I got several shots before it flew away,” Lisa Young says. Discover why green herons are among America’s smartest birds.

Cattle Egret In Flight, wading bird
Courtesy Jerry Hopman

Cattle Egret

“I made a mad dash to Brazos Bend State Park here in southeast Texas when it reopened after being closed due to COVID-19. As I was watching and photographing the many roosting birds in the trees, I noticed this cattle egret starting a flight path in front of me,” Jerry Hopman says.

252253798 1 Curt Lundeen Bnb Bypc2020
Courtesy Curt Lundeen

Great Blue Heron Rookery

“There’s a heron rookery near my home. When I took this photo in March 2020, this great blue heron pair was still in the nest-building stage. Another male had returned to a neighboring nest, which is what prompted this pose as they watched,” Curt Lundeen says. Learn about 8 different kinds of bird nests and how to spot them.

Bnbugc James Glasson
Courtesy James Glasson


“I was in a birding area called Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in southwest Florida. The weather was cool that day, but it didn’t keep my limpkin friend here from searching for goodies,” James Glasson says. Learn about beach birds and the best beach birding locations.

253773850 1 Gilberto Sanchez Bnb Bypc2020
Courtesy Gilberto Sanchez

Roseate Spoonbill

“Finding and photographing the fabulous roseate spoonbill is truly a joy. The deep and vivid colors of this adult’s amazing pink feathers are perfectly reflected on the water. There is a special moment when a roseate spoonbill is preening where, with the right angle, you can appreciate how its wings and body form a heart shape. I took this photo at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Titusville, Florida,” Gilberto Sanchez says. Quiz: How many shorebirds can you identify?

275645642 1 Tom Scheidt Bnb Bypc2021
Courtesy Tom Scheidt

Cranes in Flight

“Every fall I travel out to the Goose Lake Conservation Area in McHenry County, Illinois, to watch and count the sandhill cranes migrating south. In the four years I’ve been doing this, I was always hopeful that a rare whooping crane would be flying with the sandhills. Late last November, my wish came true,” Tom Scheidt says. Here are 8 facts about sandhill cranes you didn’t know.

250439573 1 David Heilman Bnb Bypc2020
Courtesy David Heilman

Sandhill Crane Colt

“This is the smallest sandhill crane colt I have ever seen. I was out photographing a spring sunrise on Kangaroo Lake Nature Preserve near Baileys Harbor, Wisconsin, when I spotted this little one swimming along. All I had to do was wait for it to clear the reeds, after which the mother crane let the colt know he had no business being out there,” David Heilman says. Psst—we found even more super cute pictures of baby birds.

277613928 1 Sundar Cherala Bnb Bypc2021
Courtesy Sundar Cherala

Tricolored Heron

“With a long bright blue bill, slate blue back and white belly, it’s no wonder they call this bird a tricolored heron. I saw this breeding adult in Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach, Florida, during the spring of 2020,” Sundar Cherala says. Learn more about the little blue heron.

Bnbbyc19 Conrad Peloquin 1 (1)
Courtesy Conrad Peloquin

Snowy Egret

“This photo of a spectacular snowy egret was taken on Sanibel Island, Florida. It’s probably one of my all-time favorite photos. The bird was positioned perfectly, and its stunning speckled foot and matching yellow eye patch both pop. In order to get this shot, I had to lie down on the wet, sandy beach and hope that this beauty didn’t fly the coop. The snowy was cooperative and ignored me, continuing to hunt for tiny fish and other ocean nibbles,” Conrad Peloquin says. Next, dive into fascinating facts about anhinga birds.