When the White Ibis is soaring, it’s a magnificent and graceful bird, from its black-tipped wings to its long, curved, signature beak.
When an Ibis comes in for a landing, on the other hand, it turns into a gawky and awkward comic. It’s hard to tell its wings from its tail feathers.
Those are just two of the varied performances the Ibis delivers as it patrols the wetlands of the southeastern United States. While it mixes with the Egrets, Herons and Anhingas with which it shares the marshes, the Ibis stands out for its distinctive profile and personality.
All this helps make it a symbol of the marshes – and a bird to watch for both its beauty and its health as one of the coastal species under pressure. Particularly in Florida, where the Ibis is most plentiful, researchers say its numbers are nonetheless diminishing with the steady loss of habitat.
As the climate has changed, the Ibis has slowly expanded its reach. You can find them as far north as the Carolinas, depending on the season, as this map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology shows.
They’re not hard to spot; that’s partly because of their long, pink beaks they use to sift for crustaceans, fish and insects, and partly because they’re rarely alone. They fly, feed – and just hang out – in groups of dozens of birds.
The other day, we encountered a full community of White Ibis gathered on the northern tip of Jekyll Island, Georgia, one of the sea islands where limits on development make room for wildlife. When we approached a small bridge over the marshes, a dozen Ibis were jostling for position on two narrow railings.
It made for a comedy routine you couldn’t stop watching. They all wanted to be on first one railing, then on the other. They jumped off and traded places, pointing their distinctive beaks every which way. Then they lined up in near perfect profile as if ready for inspection.
At times, the Ibis will be bashful and flee when they see you. Other times, they’ll put up with visitors and allow a good look. That day on Jekyll Island, they didn’t seem to mind our presence and stood posing for all the pictures we could take.
Here’s a gallery from that day, as well as encounters with Ibis all across the Southeast the past few years: