The White-faced heron is a slender, medium-sized heron and easily identified, with its blue-gray body and white face. It also has white on the front of the neck. It has long, lance-shaped feathers on lower neck, chest and back. The female is slightly smaller than the male. Juveniles have a duller, paler plumage than adult birds, and have less white on their face, some pink-buff on their chest, browner underparts and no long plumes.
The White-faced heron occurs throughout most of the Australasian countries, including New Guinea, the Torres Strait islands, New Caledonia, Indonesia, New Zealand, the sub Antarctic islands, and Australia, though not in this country’s driest areas. It also now lives on Christmas Island but may not yet breed there. It is also on Lombok, Sumbawa and Flores, and has been seen as a vagrant in the Cocos Islands, the Solomon Islands and China. In Australia’s Northern Territory and Cape York Peninsula it is generally a winter visitor. In the late 1940s it introduced itself to New Zealand and is the only heron known to breed in Tasmania. This species is locally nomadic and lives in habitats that feature both salty and fresh wetlands, farm dams, grasslands, pastures shores, saltmarsh, tidal mudflats, crops, boat-harbors, beaches, orchards, golf courses, and garden fish-ponds.
A graceful bird when flying, this heron uses slow, deep wing beats. Compared to other herons, it will more often fly with its neck extended. Generally solitary, and defending well-spaced territories for feeding, these birds may roost together or occasionally feed in small, loose groups. They sometimes follow other foraging birds, such as ibises and cormorants, to take advantage of any prey that is disturbed. This species feeds mainly during the day, though it has been seen to hunt at night. When disturbed, they will promptly leave the scene, using slow wing beats. They can be seen resting in trees. This species is nomadic and is partially migratory. Its calls include a ‘graaw’ or ‘graak’, when flying, typically during aggressive interactions. They also make a ‘gow, gow, gow’ sound on returning to their nest, and the alarm call is a high-pitched ‘wrank’.
White-faced herons are carnivores, they eat mainly fish, crustaceans and worms. They will also eat rats, mice, small reptiles, frogs, eels, grasshoppers, spiders, beetles, caterpillars, flies and aquatic insects, as well as their larvae. In summer, they will eat large amounts of crickets from pastures and farmland.
White-faced herons make monogamous pairs and typically nest alone, or sometimes in a small colony of 5 to 10 pairs, sometimes more. Although they nest in some areas almost year-round, usually responding to rainfall and flooding, August to December is the usual breeding period. The nest is a flimsy stick platform, lined with grass and finer twigs, and built in a tree. Both male and female construct the nest, which may be reused in successive years. The usual place to nest is in saline or freshwater wetlands with surrounding trees, however, they sometimes nest in trees that are some distance from water. 2 to 4 eggs are usually laid and incubation is around 24 to 25 days, with the parents taking turns every ten hours. The chicks are fed with regurgitated food and fledge at 38 to 42 days, and often stay with their parents until the next brood arrives.
The White-faced heron is currently not at risk of extinction, and in New Zealand and Australia it is considered to be the most widespread and common heron species. Previously the main threat has been pollution and habitat destruction. Inland populations have recovered somewhat during the last two decades due to banning of DDT and the improved habitat management on federal and state refuges. The coastal populations have continued a decline during the past 20 years, which is perhaps due to pesticides used for rice farming.
This species has an extremely large range, but current statistics on population are not known. Currently the White-faced heron is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List.