Imagine Bob’s and my surprise when we got wind of a Glossy Ibis hanging around in Whitby, Ontario, one spring. The bird’s presence here in Canada is very unusual, and it had birders’ tongues flapping. Word spread quickly as to its location, and people flocked to see the Ibis, in some cases driving long distances for a look at this beautiful wading bird.
The Glossy Ibis had many wetlands to choose from in the Whitby area, Second Marsh and Lynde Shores to name a couple, and indeed, the bird had been seen at Second Marsh and even flying over Thickson’s Woods at one point, but it was a small seasonal wetland along Victoria Street that captured the Ibis’s interest, and that is where it remained for at least three weeks. This over-sized puddle is fondly referred to as Sobey’s Pond.
One failed attempt at seeing the Glossy Ibis had Bob and I getting up earlier than usual one morning for a second drive east to take a look. Even before we parked the car, a lineup of paparazzi along one side of the flooded field gave away the location of the tropical bird. One caring observer warned me to keep my distance for fear of spooking the bird, but it is our habit to give a wide berth to wildlife in any case. Still, I appreciated their concern.
Glossy Ibises are permanent residents throughout Florida and the Caribbean islands, but some populations migrate further north during breeding season to occupy marshes and wetlands along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. On occasion, the odd vagrant is found inland such as this specimen that was way out of its normal range.
A Glossy Ibis is a medium-sized wading bird that stands about 20 inches tall. One of its features that I find intriguing is the long, slender, downturned bill. The fact that an Ibis’s grey bill resembles a scythe or sickle gave rise to its Latin name Plegadis falcinellus, words that refer to the distinctive bill.
Bob and I had occasion to see a Glossy Ibis at Lake Chapala in Mexico one January, and although it was a striking bird, it was not as impressive as the one above, seen in Whitby during breeding season. In breeding plumage, a Glossy Ibis is a showstopper. For starters, the feathers that cover the head, neck, back and underparts are a rich, chestnut colour rather than the overall non-breeding dark shade that verges on black.
It was a warm, sunny day when we saw the Ibis at Sobey’s Pond, and the early morning light really accentuated the iridescent green, purple and bronze feathers of the Ibis’s wings, lower back and tail, again a transformation that occurs in breeding season. Even the thin band of skin that outlines its face has become a more intense shade of blue than during other times of the year.
Bob and I spent a good two hours watching the Glossy Ibis as it foraged in the shallow waters of the flooded plain. It stealthily and slowly picked its way across the marshy area from one side to the other, on its long olive-grey legs.
We were really impressed that the Glossy Ibis could eke out a substantial source of food right there in the seasonally-flooded area bounded by highways on all four sides. Time and time again, the Ibis came up with what appeared to be a freshwater leech, squirming and contorting its body that was held tightly in the Ibis’s bill.
A Glossy Ibis’s long, curved bill is indispensable when it comes to foraging. An Ibis forages by touch using sensors on the bill to locate prey deep in soft mud. These same sensors enable the bird to swiftly close the bill on any prey detected, while the ridged edges of the bill hold the food securely. A wide variety of creatures in our neck of the woods would satisfy the needs of an Ibis, with everything from a variety of insects to snails, frogs, small snakes and lizards all providing the necessary protein.
It was interesting to watch how the Ibis maneuvered its secured tidbits from the end of the bill to its mouth. By lunging its head forward, the prey was moved closer to its mouth in increments. On its way, the prey was either mashed between the upper and lower mandible before the Ibis swallowed or in some cases was eaten whole. It was a wonderful way to pass the morning, chatting with fellow birdwatchers and photographers while the Glossy Ibis ate its fill. It could be a long time before another one of these tropical birds is seen this far north.