Help me identify a wading bird

Driving home the other day, I encountered a wading bird, a crane or heron, that I’d not seen before. This is in Wisconsin, not far from the Horicon marsh, but in very hilly Kettle Moraine country.

The two birds in question were standing beside the road, and at first glance, I thought they were two young deer, they were so big!

The birds were a darker brown, and had black tailfeathers which dangled towards the ground. Towards the backs of their heads, red feathers (or something) came down from off the crown of the head and hung down over the back for at least 3 or 4 inches. They were a good 3 to 3 and a half feet tall, perhaps more.

I’d not noted their like before. And I’ve been no stranger to the wildlife of the Horicon marsh either.

Any ideas?

Perhaps a sandhill crane?

Sorry, no.

The bird was pretty uniform brown, save for black tailfeathers which dangled, and dangly red feathers going down the back of the head.

I agree. Adults are gray, but often become stained brown (as in Polycarp’s link) from rusty mud by preening. Juveniles are also brownish, but would lack red on the head.

I am a little puzzled, however, by the description of “red feathers” hanging down off the crown, however, since the red on the head is bare skin, not feathers. This feature doesn’t match any North American bird I can think of. I assume you mistook the bare crown for feathers.

Hmmm. That’s a head-scratcher, then. I’ll do some more research.

Ok, I had a quick look through the* Handbook of Birds of the World*, which illustrates every species, just in case I was overlooking something, and there simply aren’t any large crane or heron-like birds anywhere in the world that have red feathers hanging off the crown.

A distant possibility might be Reddish Egret but as this is not entirely brown, does not have really red feathers on the head, and is seriously out of range I doubt it.

There are two possibilities:

  1. You are mistaken in some part of your description.

  2. You have a species new to science. Send a photo to me and I’ll name it Grus qadgopii. :slight_smile:

How 'bout a Tricolored Heron? tricolored_heron3.html

Well, guess that link doesn’t work, try this one

Well, it’s not brown all over, doesn’t have red feathers hanging off the crown (though the hind neck can sometimes be brownish) and is seriously out of range, so that would be a bit of a stretch, but who knows.

Sibley’s shows it’s occurance in and all around Wisconsin and describes the juvenile as having a long redish neck. The plate show that the red continues down the back and over the wings.

Sibley shows two records of vagrant birds in Wisconsin (those green dots). The green dots in neighboring states show other records of vagrants. The species is extremely rare in Wisconsin and neigboring states. It normally only occurs near the coast. Wisconsin is far outside its normal range.

Yes, the juvenile has a reddish neck, but it is also not brown all over, nor does it have red feathers hanging from the crown.

Don’t want to get in a pissin’ match with a pro, was just an idea. I know from my own feeble attempts at birding that light conditions, angle of viewing and other factors can make one think they see all kinds of things.

Scroll to the bottom of this page, looks pretty brown to me, at least on top. Don’t most herons have the little dangly feathers coming off their top knot? Some bigger than others? Especially when they are displaying or getting chased by cars?

Green dots represent locations of rare occurrence (may be a single record or up to a few records a year). These dots are included to show broad patterns of occurance, not necessarily precise details of rare records.

One needs to consider the probabilities. Wisconsin is way outside the normal range of both Tricolored Heron and Reddish Egret (which I proposed as another very unlikely possibility; there are in fact no records from Wisconsin). Tricolored Heron is possible in Wisconsin, just very unlikely. Neither of these two species fits the description at all well. My point was not to reject your proposal entirely, just to indicate it was very unlikely.

On the other hand, Wisconsin is well within the breeding range of Sandhill Crane, which more or less fits the description in all ways except for the detail of the red on the head being a patch of bare skin instead of feathers, and that even on brown-stained birds the head remains grayish. (Sandhills can appear even more completely brown than the one linked to by Polycarp). Also, the tail feathers, which “dangle toward the ground” (unlike those of the 2 herons) are not really black, but could appear so in some lighting conditions).

Here’s another vote for sandhill cranes. Color is not a reliable indicator of the type of bird; the same bird can appear many different colors depending on lighting and angle. For example, I’ve seen mallards whose traditional brilliant green head look blue or even black depending on the light.

Factors like size, range, and identifiers that typically can only be seen with binoculars (markings on the face, rings around the eye, feathers that might be curved or mottled or whatever) are much more reliable than color when it comes to bird identification.

The other reason I think it’s a sandhill crane is that QtM thought they were deer at first. Every time I see sandhills, my first impression is “Oh there’s a deer over there!” Their heads are very deerlike, and they tend to hang out in areas where you might see deer as well.

Oh and I forgot - size-wise, it’s doubtful QtM saw anything but a sandhill crane. The egrets and herons mentioned so far are relatively small birds compared to cranes, and QtM said that the birds he saw were BIG. According to Sibley, tricolored herons are around 26" long and Reddish Egrets are 30" long; not nearly large enough to be mistaken for deer. Sandhill Cranes, on the other hand, get up to 46" long.

My money’s on the crane.

Sorry, none of those images ring a bell yet. And perhaps they weren’t red feathers, but something red was hanging down off the back of the heads of each of them, a la “ponytail”.

Thanks for trying, folks. I’ll have to start driving to work with the camera ready. I really am curious now. The brown was a milk-chocolate sort of brown, the tailfeathers long and hanging, and the damn things were big!

And the birds were no more than 10 feet away from me, standing by the side of the road, admiring my car!

OK, after examining a couple hundred images of sandhill cranes, I have to say that this photo looks somewhat close:

The birds I saw seemed to be a more uniform and darker brown, the tailfeathers seemed longer and darker, and it still seemed to me that there was a red bit dangling down the backs of their heads. But I am forced to conclude it was some sort of sandhill crane I saw.

I will still carry my camera in case I get a second siting!

Thanks, dopers!

I almost linked to that particular image to show how brown they can appear. I should perhaps mention again that the brown coloration is not the actual color of the feathers, which are gray, but instead staining from the mud in which the birds feed, which gets on to the feathers when the birds preen. If they happened to be feeding in darker mud, they may have acquired a darker coloration.

How long the tailfeathers appear can depend on posture, as in this image.

I agree with Athena’s point about size. The Sandhill Crane is larger than any heron in North America; although it has about the same body length as a Great Blue Heron it is about twice the bulk. The only wading bird larger than it in the US is the Whooping Crane.

This is a long shot. Could they juvenile whooping cranes ? They are brown with black feather tips. and red on the head. The picture I linked to are older, I think, I found some others that were more uniformly brown, but I clicked the wrong button and disappeared my browser. :smack: Now I can’t remember which sites in my history they were. You go oogle on google. :slight_smile:
Wouldn’t that be a find!