Wanderings of the mystery bird


The Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) is a typical coastal wading bird: it walks on stilt-like legs through shallow water near the Gulf Coast (in summer breeding season, up the Atlantic coast as far as Maine, according to the Audubon page). It eats insects, crayfish, worms and similar food it picks out of the water in marshes, shallow ponds, tidal pools and similar habitats. The range map shows it restricted to within about 50 miles of the ocean, in most of its range. So…what is it doing at Jensen Marsh in Madison County, Iowa…some 800 miles inland?

I don’t actually know. In fact, I wasn’t even 100% sure this bird IS a Glossy Ibis. It has the right size and shape, and iridescent rainbow plumage. Seems a likely guess. So I submitted a report to the Iowa Ornithologists Union (IOU) website: it would be a new record for Madison County, and I see listed there reports from only 14 of 99 Iowa counties. And yes, I was hoping to get confirmation on the ID. If I contribute information on bird migrations and habitat use, so much the better.

The IOU online form and automated response was very efficient and professional. However I couldn’t help but note the numerous questions asking why you think this might be the bird you claim, and how you came to that conclusion. I smiled ruefully as I imagined the numerous reports of Toucan Sam at the backyard bird feeder and so forth.

Subsequent to my submission of the sighting to IOU, my colleague Russ, who teaches Ornithology, suggested that this time of year it may not be possible to distinguish Glossy from White-faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi). So, it may remain a mystery! Perhaps, dear reader,  you have a knack for ID, and can verify—I’d love to hear your feedback in the Comments section.


Birds fascinate me—and migratory birds especially capture the imagination. In a few days where will it be? A riverbank in Missouri? Then rice fields in Arkansas? And later a farm pond in Texas? Eventually—the Gulf of Mexico?

In any case, this Ibis likely migrates long distances—and it won’t be at Jensen Marsh much longer. The rainstorm in the area of two days earlier, likely created a valuable opportunity for this bird: a chance to fill up its belly before its upcoming long-distance flight to wherever it overwinters. The marsh was no doubt teeming with numerous small prey items, returning to newly-inundated areas of marsh that had been dry a few days before (we saw the phenomenon at the visit to nearby Blue Flag Marsh). Wherever the bird had been, and wherever it was heading, at this moment it was fortunate to have a large, ecologically-rich wetland to visit. And I suppose, I too was fortunate, although what filled me from my visit was less caloric and more beautiful. I was filled with wonder and delight. Thanks for sharing this with me.


Author: Paul Weihe

Associate Professor of Biology at Central College, traditional author (Textbook of Limnology, Cole & Weihe, 5th ed.; Waveland Press), and now...blogger!

One thought on “Wanderings of the mystery bird”

  1. UPDATE! The Secretary of the Iowa Ornithological Union Bird Records Committee recently sent me a summary of the Evaluation of Record No. 2017-37 for Glossy Ibis (the on-line report of this sighting). The vote was overwhelming—my bird is almost certainly NOT a Glossy Ibis, but instead a White-Faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi). Various comments on its appearance and specific characteristics of the two species were relayed. And…it’s apparently difficult to distinguish the species without good view and expert knowledge.

    Here’s the thing: although amateur botanists are serious about their work, and butterfly aficionados are quite keen, and foragers have “a fire in the belly,” nobody beats birders for passion and numbers of enthusiasts. This thoughtful consideration and communication is just the latest in my many, many interactions with birders and I am just amazed at this community. Thanks for the feedback, guys. May your optics be clear and your lighting just right…I wish you well.


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