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Blane Klemek column: A first encounter with the white-faced ibis

Bird watching column from Blane Klemek.

White-Faced Ibis 2
White-Faced Ibis.
Becky Matsubara
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DETROIT LAKES – On the last day of April, a good friend of mine and I jumped in his truck and headed West to North Dakota to hunt snow geese.

Following a marathon 14-hour scouting adventure that traversed highways and back roads from the Manitoba to the South Dakota borders and all places in between, we fairly surmised that the snow goose migration had come and gone.

Save for a few hundred mostly juvenile snow geese and a handful of Ross’ geese in scattered bands that we encountered in our search for much larger flocks of “snows and blues” (snow geese and the species’ blue phased morphs), what we were treated with instead was an avian show like no other.

Tens of thousands of almost every imaginable species of North American diver and puddle duck occupied every flooded field, ditch and wetland. The Great Plains were alive with waterfowl.

White-Faced Ibis 1
White-Faced Ibis.
Jerry Kirkhart

And that wasn’t all.


Shorebirds, wading birds, passerines, raptors, gallinaceous birds, gulls and terns and other species of geese such as white-fronted and Canada geese, as well as both trumpeter and tundra swans, graced the prairie landscape in a dizzying assemblage of birdlife unmatched anywhere—including one species of bird that I had never observed before: the white-faced ibis.

At first glance, one might think an ibis is a shorebird. Though they resemble shorebirds such as godwits and curlews, ibises are classified as wading birds more closely related to herons, storks, spoonbills and flamingos. Notable among all ibises occurring in North America are their thin and long, decurved bill and long legs and neck.

What surprised me when I saw my first white-faced ibis was their size. I didn’t expect them to be as large as they are. Characterized as a medium-sized bird about 18 to 22-inches in length, their three-foot wingspan and long legs, neck and beak give them the appearance of much bigger birds than they really are. These conspicuous birds stand out among all other birds in both their anatomical features and plumage coloration.

They appear all-black from a distance, especially in subdued lighting. Viewed up close, through quality optics and in the sunlight, observers can expect to discover a glossy maroon body with wing coverts showcasing brilliant metallic green and bronze. As their name suggests, a narrow band of white on their face is distinctive. Simply put, the white-faced ibis is aptly named and beautifully colored.

With such a long bill and long legs, the white-faced ibis is what one would expect behaviorally for a bird with such physical features. At home, in both salt and freshwater marshes and other shallow wetlands where mud bottoms and flats can be accessed and probed with their bills, these colonial birds submerge their beaks into the water and mud or glean the soil and vegetation, where they search for prey by both sight and touch.

Nearly all food types are on the menu—insects, both terrestrial and aquatic, including grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, and crustaceans. White-faced ibises will also capture and eat worms, snails, mollusks, leeches, fish, frogs and toads, snakes and lizards, and salamanders and newts.

White-faced ibises are usually observed with other ibises. During my weekend journey in North Dakota, my friend and I saw as many six to eight or so ibises feeding together at a time. When flushing, their outstretched necks, long dangling legs and surprisingly wide wingspans set these interesting birds apart from most wading birds. And unlike any other wading bird that I know of, such as herons and egrets, the social white-faced ibis can often be viewed feeding near each other.

A couple of days before our trip to North Dakota, another friend of mine e-mailed me a photo of a bird he spotted in a wetland north of Bemidji. The bird was an ibis, which, for him, was the first-ever sighting. “Lucky you,” I replied. Little did I know what would soon be in store for me.


And for all of us? We’re lucky, too. Birds, birds and more birds are everywhere here and nearby during this magnificent and special time of spring renewal and migration, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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