The very nature of the Central Coast of California gives us the ability to see a variety of water birds. Whether one lives at the shore or inland, chances are they have seen some kind of wading bird in your territory. The most commonly recognized ones are herons and egrets, but lately there have been sightings of birds that are not regularly seen here. One of those is the white-faced ibis.
Residents of the central valley may be more familiar with this sickle-billed bird if they have visited the wetland refuges located there, but this is an unusual visitor to our coastal area.
There are three kinds of ibis in North America, the white ibis that inhabits the southeast section of the country, the glossy ibis, also an eastern coast species, and the white-faced ibis seen primarily in the west.
Worldwide there are numerous ibis and there are interesting facts about them. The scared ibis was venerated in ancient Egypt and many mummified bodies of these birds have been found by archeologists. In Florida, during hurricane season, ibis are the last species to seek cover and the first to reappear afterward.
White-faced ibis are the size of a small goose and have dark purplish to purplish green glossy feathers with a green or bronze sheen on the wings. Their legs are a reddish maroon color as well as the face, which has a border of white feathers during breeding season. White-faced ibis also have red eyes.
At first glance these birds look almost identical to their cousins, the glossy ibis, however, glossies have brown eyes and slaty face skin with a pale blue border. In the Gulf Coast area the species do overlap.
White-faced ibis feed in freshwater and saltwater marshes, lakes, tidal mudflats, and irrigated fields using their long curved bill to probe in the mud for crustaceans, worms and burrowing insects. They feed in irregular groups and gather into long straggling lines in flight with their legs extended beyond their bodies.
During the 1960s and 70s breeding of white-faced ibis took a plunge due to both habitat loss and chemical pesticides. Similar to the plight of brown pelicans, ibis eggs became very thin from DDT and were easily crushed during nesting. While DDT was banned here in 1972, it is still used in other countries where the birds winter so it still presents a problem.
White-faced ibis are migratory birds and range from the western states in North America to Mexico and South America. In recent years small groups of these birds have shown up on the Central Coast sometimes stopping at the estuary in Morro Bay, or showing up at Laguna Lake in San Luis Obispo.
In May a flock of approximately 30 birds flew north over the ocean near Piedras Blancas Lighthouse and settled down to feed in a small wet marshy area just north of there along with a herd of cows. It was a first for that location. Sightings like these bring hope that the birds are recovering and increasing in numbers.
There is an opportunity to see rare birds like white-faced ibis at the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival held every year over the Martin Luther King Junior weekend in January.