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Text and Photos by Peter Vankevich
The American White Ibis is a prized bird for northern birders and visitors from other countries to see on Ocracoke.
This is a medium-sized wading bird with a reddish face, bill and legs and all-white feathers except for prominent black wing tips prominently seen in flight. Its long, decurved bill distinguishes this species from the egrets and herons on the island and gives it a prehistoric look. Juveniles are light brown with white under parts. They may fly alone or in small linear flocks.
The breeding range these days runs along the Gulf and Atlantic Coast, and the coasts of Mexico and Central America. See below for more info.
Their diet includes aquatic and terrestrial arthropods, frogs, lizards, small snakes, snails and small fish. Foraging includes both finding prey by sight and by probing through vegetation and water with their bill.
Best Time to see: Year-round. Their pesence on Ocracoke in the winter varies from year-to-year, sometimes in fair numbers and absent in others.
Where: They can often be seen in the marsh grasses or perched in the cedars along the South Point Road, Springer’s Point and near the Hatteras ferry terminal; in flight over the island, and at both Ocracoke and Hatteras inlets. After big rains they may be found in yards in the village and around the NPS Visitors Center and the campground foraging in flocks.
(audio provided courtesy of OhioLINK Digital Resource Commons)
Click here for the Birds of the Outer Banks checklist
In North America, historically their breeding range was restricted to the Gulf Coast and along the Atlantic up to Georgia. White Ibis were first recorded breeding in North Carolina in 1889, but they were not found nesting in large numbers until 1950 when more than 1,000 were discovered breeding in Robeson County near Lumberton in Warwick Mill Bay, a freshwater wetland. The largest breeding colony these days is on Battery Island near Southport in Brunswick County. Their numbers have increased in the state over the last 70 years with estimates of more than 10,000 pairs and the vast majority are on Battery Island. The first nesting record of the Outer Banks was on Pea Island in 1983. Although there are some suspected locations for ibis nesting sites on Ocracoke, I can’t confirm it.
The American White Ibis is most common in Florida, where more than 30,000 have been counted in a single breeding colony. It also occurs throughout the Caribbean, on both coasts of Mexico (from Baja California southwards) and Central America, and as far south as Columbia and Venezuela. The non-breeding range extends further inland, reaching north to Virginia, and west to eastern Texas.
After breeding, these wading birds will disperse widely, rambling primarily north and inland in fall, and south in winter spending time in swamps as well and saltwater marshes.
The iridescent Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) and rarely, the White-faced Ibis(Plegadis chihi) may also be seen in on the Outer Banks.
Worldwide there are 28 species in the Ibis family including the African Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) which in ancient Egypt was held in high veneration and believed to have magical capabilities.
Thoth, the god of all knowledge, was often depicted with the head of an ibis. Ibis along with cats were often mummified. Perhaps their high esteem was due in part not only to their interesting looks but also because they were known to eat serpents and crocodile eggs.
The White Ibis is noted these days for being the mascot of the University of Miami (Florida) sports teams.