A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Our smallest Heron. Fairly common throughout the county in appropriate habitat. Green Heron favors streams and freshwater ponds and lakes with trees nearby. Often seen (or missed completely) standing perfectly still at the water's edge, waiting for prey to move within striking distance, but also perches in trees. Feeds on various small fish, insects, and invertebrates. Usually solitary, but not uncommon to see three or four birds loosely associated (notably at Spring Lake). Nests and roosts alone in trees rather than in colonies. More common in the summer in Sonoma County, but present all year. 

Recognized by its stocky build; small size relative to other herons; dark, greenish back; white edges on the dark greenish wing feathers conspicuous when folded; rich brown neck and shoulders, often with brownish grey at the very base of the neck; long, pointed bill; large eye with yellow iris; yellow orbital ring and lores. The front of the neck is white, but striped with black. Feet are usually a dull greenish-yellow, but become bright yellow-orange in breeding plumage. Will sometimes raise the dark feathers on its crown to form a shaggy crest (photo below). Juvenile birds are browner overall and heavily streaked on their underparts. Superficially similar to Black-crowned Night Heron, but Black-crowned Night Heron is a much larger bird that is mostly pale grey with a dark green back and cap. Black-crowned Night Heron has a conspicuously large red eye that sets it apart, a feature already present in juveniles (photo below) .

Older sources may list this bird as Green-backed Heron or Striated Heron. Green-backed Heron is at present considered a closely-related but distinct species (Butorides striata) that occurs in the Old World tropics from west Africa to Japan, and South America. Green-backed Heron or Striated Heron was split by the American Ornithological Union into Green Heron (B. virescens) in North America, Striated Heron (B. striatus) as above, and Lava Heron, in the Galapagos Islands (B. Sundevalli)  in 1993. In 2003, B. striatus and B. Sundevalli were reunited to become B. striata (a great deal of disagreement remains on whether these birds should be considered distinct.)

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 25

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 150

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 33

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 110

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 118

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 136-137

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 34 (as Green-backed Heron, Butorides striatus)

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 65

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 110

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 160

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 62-63

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 19

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 50

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 88

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 110

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 59

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 133

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 91

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Green Heron



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Green Heron: A younger bird with neck partially rufous, but still showing some of the streaking of its juvenile plumage

For comparison: Adult Black-crowned Night Heron--Note the overall grey color except for back and cap; proportionately large, red eye,

Juvenile Green Heron: Spring Lake, September 29, 2011

For comparison: Immature Black-crowned Night Heron

Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, September 20, 2012

Note particularly the proportionately large red eye. The legs and base of the bill of this bird are stained an unusual color by blue-green algae

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated July 10, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County

Green Heron

Butorides virescens

Green Heron, Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, October 29, 2013