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Itinerant Birds Land in North Dakota

Article By 
Ron Wilson
White-faced Ibis 1

The white-faced ibis is a wanderer.

Described as semi-nomadic by biologists, this gregarious, wetland bird is quick to search out and discover preferred habitat created by abundant precipitation.

Because of this itinerant characteristic, and North Dakota’s wealth of bigger marshes and smaller lakes, the white-faced ibis has become a recurrent visitor to the state the last several years.

“With other parts of the country being drier, North Dakota is a draw to these nomadic birds because of our bigger marshes and smaller lakes that the birds prefer,” said Sandra Johnson, North Dakota Game and Fish Department conservation biologist. “There was a time when it was uncommon to see the white-faced ibis in the state, but within the last 10 years or so with a lot of water on the landscape, they are becoming one of the more common wading birds you’ll see. When you’re out birding, you’re not as surprised as you used to be to see them.”

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The white-face ibis is described as a large, chestnut-bronze marsh bird with a down-curved bill.

“If the sun is behind them, they just look like a dark bird,” Johnson said. “But when the sun is right, they are very colorful. Catch them in the right light and their colors of a metallic purple, bronze and green really come through. I can understand why some people in North Dakota have taken to photographing them.”

This ibis, however, is often mistaken for the glossy ibis, a much rarer species. Johnson said one tell-tale characteristic separating the two while in North Dakota in spring and summer is the narrow band of white feathers around the white-faced ibis’s eyes.

“You don’t see white around the eyes of the glossy,” she said.

What the white-faced ibis is doing in North Dakota in spring and summer is breeding. Johnson said the birds breed in colonies, building bulky platform nests in emergent vegetation, shrubs or trees to avoid predation. Males and females team up to build nests.

White-faced Ibis 4

“Their nests are actually hard to locate because they are typically constructed on big wetlands, and they are hidden from view by cattails, bulrushes and other vegetation,” Johnson said.

About two weeks after hatching, young will wander short distances from the nest, and will leave the colony after about seven weeks, biologists say.

Because of its gregarious nature, the white-faced ibis does little alone. Aside from breeding in colonies, the birds also feed in large groups. In some parts of the country, flocks of up to 1,000 birds have been reported.

“The most I’ve seen together in North Dakota is 30-40,” Johnson said. “Typically, I’ll see three or four here, or three or four there.”

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The white-faced ibis feeds on insects, crayfish, frogs, small fish and other edible prey. While it’s said they’ll feed by sight, snapping up whatever is close to the water’s surface, they also probe the shallow water and mud with their sensitive, down-curved bills.

When the weather dictates, the white-faced ibis will migrate from the northern portions of its range to winter as far south as northern South America.

The return of this bird to North Dakota next spring or the one after that is determined by the amount of marsh habitat on the landscape. If the marshes retreat because of a decline in precipitation, the semi-nomadic white-faced ibis will likely do the same.