White-faced heron (Egretta novaehollandiae)

Also known as: blue crane
Synonyms: Ardea novaehollandiae
GenusEgretta (1)
SizeLength: 58 - 66 cm (2)
Wingspan: c. 106 cm (3)
Weight500 - 550 g (2)
Top facts

The white-faced heron is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A slender, medium-sized heron species, the white-faced heron (Egretta novaehollandiae) is easily identified by its blue-grey body and distinctive white face (2) (3) (4) (5). The white colouration extends onto the forehead, cheeks, chin, crown and upper throat (2) (4), with the patterning on the top of the head being variable, the white sometimes extending down the neck (2).

The white-faced heron has long, lance-shaped plumes on its back, lower neck and chest. The plumes on the chest are bronze- to chestnut-coloured while those on the back are grey (2) (4) (5), and the plumes become brighter, more numerous and more prominent during the breeding season (2) (3). The underparts of the white-faced heron are otherwise pale grey, and the undersides of the wings have a barred appearance, with black tips to the flight feathers, a whitish centre to the wing and a grey leading edge (2) (4). The white-faced heron’s tail is dark grey (2).

The area between the white-faced heron’s beak and eyes is grey-black during the breeding season, but paler olive-yellow at other times (2) (4) (5). The beak is long and black, with pale grey at the base of the lower mandible, and the heron’s eyes vary from grey to green or dull yellowish. The white-faced heron’s legs are yellowish, turning more pinkish-orange or reddish during the breeding season (2) (4).

The female white-faced heron is similar in appearance to the male, but is slightly smaller (2) (3). Juvenile white-faced herons have duller, paler plumage than the adults, with less white on the face, browner underparts and some pink-buff on the chest. The juvenile also lacks the adult’s long plumes (2) (4) (5).

Two subspecies of white-faced heron are generally recognised, with Egretta novaehollandiae parryi being darker than Egretta novaehollandiae novaehollandiae (4). Some scientists also recognise two others, Egretta novaehollandiae nana and Egretta novaehollandiae austera (2), although the criteria for separating them are unclear and need further study (2) (4).

The calls of the white-faced heron include a ‘graak’ or ‘graaw’, which is given in flight, typically during aggressive encounters. This species also gives a ‘gow, gow, gow’ call on returning to the nest, and a high-pitched ‘wrank’ in alarm (2) (4).

The white-faced heron occurs across Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, New Guinea, New Caledonia, Timor-Leste and southern Indonesia (2) (6). It has also occasionally been recorded as far as China, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and the Solomon Islands (6), and appears to be colonising Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean (2).

The subspecies E. n. parryi has been recorded from north-western Australia (7). White-faced herons from New Caledonia have sometimes been separated as the subspecies E. n. nana (2) (4) (7), and those from Irian Jaya, Indonesia, as E. n. austera (2).

Although the white-faced heron is not migratory, it does undertake many local and seasonal movements and can sometimes travel long distances. In New Zealand, white-faced herons generally move inland during winter, while in Australia they tend to move inland to flooded wetlands during the breeding season, and towards coastal areas outside of the breeding season (2) (4).

The white-faced heron is highly flexible in its habitat requirements, using a wide range of fresh- and saltwater habitats. For example, it may use inland wetlands such as lakes, ponds, swamps, reservoirs, flooded grassland and pastures (2) (3) (4), and even drier areas such as golf courses, gardens, urban parks and garbage dumps (2). The white-faced heron can also be found in coastal habitats, including tidal mudflats, mangroves, reefs, saltpans, lagoons, beaches and rocky shores (2) (4).

A graceful bird in flight, the white-faced heron has slow, deep wing beats (2), and compared to most herons it more often flies with its neck extended (2) (4). Although it is generally solitary, defending well-spaced feeding territories, the white-faced heron occasionally feeds in small, loose groups (2) (3) (4), and a number of individuals may roost together (4). This species has also been seen following other foraging birds, including ibises and cormorants, taking advantage of the prey they disturb (2) (4) (5).

The white-faced heron feeds on a variety of prey, which it hunts using a range of feeding techniques. An opportunistic species, it may take virtually any small animal it can catch, including fish, frogs, earthworms, insects, snails, and crustaceans such as shrimp and crabs (2) (3) (4) (5). It may also potentially take some plant matter. The white-faced heron typically stalks its prey in shallow water or on dry land, and may also chase it, or use its feet to stir up the water and disturb potential prey items (2) (4). This species mainly feeds during the day, but has also been reported to hunt at night (2).

Although it may nest at almost any time of year in some areas, usually in response to rainfall and flooding (2) (3), the white-faced heron most commonly breeds between August and December (2). Pairs typically nest alone, or sometimes in a small, scattered group or occasionally a larger colony (2) (4) (5).

The white-faced heron’s nest consists of a flimsy stick platform, typically built in a tree and lined with finer twigs and grass (2) (3) (4). Both sexes help construct the nest (2), and it may be reused over successive years (2) (3). The white-faced heron usually breeds in freshwater or saline wetlands with surrounding trees (2) (3), but it may also nest in trees at some distance from water (3) (4) (5).

The eggs of the white-faced heron are blue to greenish-white. Between two and seven eggs may be laid, but around three to five is more usual. Both the male and female white-faced heron incubate the eggs, which hatch after 24 to 26 days, and both adults tend to the chicks (2) (4). The young herons leave the nest at about 40 to 43 days old (2) (3) (4) (5) and continue to be fed by the adults for at least another few weeks (5). Juvenile white-faced herons often stay with the adults until the start of the next breeding season (2) (4).

The white-faced heron is not currently considered to be at risk of extinction (6), and in Australia and New Zealand it is believed to be the most common and widespread heron species (2) (4).

Although the overall population trend of this species is not well known (6), it has been increasing its range in Australia and has also spread rapidly in New Zealand. The white-faced heron was first recorded breeding in New Zealand in 1941, and has since become established throughout both the main islands (2) (4). Its spread may have been facilitated by habitat changes and by the introduction of an Australian tree frog species, on which the heron often feeds (4).

The white-faced heron has also become well established in Papua New Guinea, where it was only patchily distributed a few decades ago (4).

There are no known conservation measures currently in place that specifically target the white-faced heron.

Find out more about the white-faced heron and its conservation:

More information on conservation in Australia:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (October, 2012)
  2. IUCN SSC Heron Specialist Group - White-faced heron (October, 2012)
  3. Rogers, K. and Ralph, T.J. (2011) Floodplain Wetland Biota in the Murray-Darling Basin: Water and Habitat Requirements. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
  4. Hancock, J. and Kushlan, J. (2010) The Herons Handbook. A&C Black Publishers, London.
  5. McKilligan, N. (2005) Herons, Egrets and Bitterns: Their Biology and Conservation in Australia. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
  6. BirdLife International - White-faced heron (October, 2012)
  7. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1992) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 1: Ostrich to Ducks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.