Most of the birds people notice during the summer are the smaller songbirds of Illinois like cardinals, sparrows and jays. There are many more birds than that in Illinois, however, and some of the most interesting can be found wading in lakes and rivers. Illinois' flat landscape allows for many lakes and ponds to form, and this attracts waterbirds. Canada geese and mallard ducks are quite common in Illinois, but there are other waterbirds that are just as interesting and beautiful, if you look for them hard enough.
One of the most noticeable waterbirds of Illinois is the great blue heron (pictured above). The great blue heron can be found in any standing water, and often in rivers and creeks as well. Its call is a rough croaking that almost sounds like the noise a frog would make (you can listen to it here
). The great blue heron feeds mainly on small fish, but it can also feed on frogs and invertebrates. It hunts by standing in the water, and scanning what is below the surface until it finds something to snap up with its beak. Since most animals that live in ponds are active during the early morning and late evening, it is most likely to see a great blue heron at those hours, since they tend to be around when there is a surplus of prey.
Another, more elusive Illinois waterbird is the cormorant, a prehistoric-looking black bird. The cormorant can be found in lakes and ponds, and can often be seen swimming, only its head poking out of the water. Unlike herons, the cormorant is a diving bird, and finds most of its food while swimming underwater. Its diet is similar to the heron, and it often brings its prey up to the surface instead of eating it underwater. The cormorant is an excellent fish hunter, and in the past, it was hunted to near extinction because it competed with fisherman for the fish supply. Hunting cormorants is now illegal, and the cormorant population is able to increase again.
The snowy egret is probably one of the easiest Illinois waterbirds to notice, because of its brilliant white plumage. The egret does not camouflage well with its surroundings like the heron and cormorant, but this doesn't appear to have give it any disadvantage. It is also called "the white heron," and it is in fact related to other herons. It has flashier plumage than the great blue heron, because when it is on full display, it almost looks as if the bird has a mowhawk or mane. Its diet and hunting habits are similar to the great blue heron, and it is a bird that stands in still water, rather than a diving bird. It is slightly less common than the great blue heron, but if you search hard enough, it should be possible to see an egret this summer. This holds true for any of these birds — just keep your eyes on the water.
Photos: GregTheBusker/Flickr, The Holy Hand Grenade/Flickr