Marshland, Reed-bed and Swamp Birds.

These birds are found in marshlands, reed-beds, swamps and mangroves in many parts of the world. They range from:-

  • Large bodied, herbivorous, plant eating grazers and foragers.
  • Birds with dagger-beaks which find their prey in reed-beds and the low, thick vegetation at the edge of water bodies.
  • Smaller birds which cling to reed stems, eating insects and seeds.

Swamphens, Gallinules and Moorhens.

Variously known as Swamphens, Gallinules, Native Hens and Moorhens (14 species) these birds, listed in family Rallidae, like dense vegetation but occasionally forage in open shallows where they are more readily seen.

The Purple Swamphen (right) can be seen in Europe, Africa and Australasia. It is quite secretive and tends to hide in tall vegetation.


The frontal shield, seen with the Common Shelduck and some Coots is a notable feature of these birds.

Moorhens are also widely distributed. The Dusky Moorhen (left) was photographed in Brisbane, Australia.

In the absence of significant predators the Native-hens and the Takahe have become more terrestrial in their behaviour so I have included them with the Game Birds.

Herons, Egrets and Bitterns.

Costa Rica offers a variety of habitats within a relatively small geographical area with the potential to find 19 species of Herons.

I photographed 10 species in March / April 2009. My total coverage in family Ardeidae is 25 out of 65 species.

What defines these birds is the dagger shaped beak with which they spear their prey which is usually fish or aquatic invertebrates:-

  • Herons have an upright stance and are characterised by their concentration and patience as they stand waiting to spear fish.
  • Egrets are white plumaged species of the Heron family.
  • Bitterns are normally found in freshwater wetlands but they are much more secretive than the Herons or Egrets so they hide in dense vegetation.

Herons can be further sub-divided into Tiger Herons, Night Herons, and Reef Herons. Heron ancestry has been traced back to 55 mya but the modern birds we know today possibly date from about 40 mya.

  • Tiger Herons are thought to have evolved first and are only found in Central America. Also in Central America we find the large Agami Heron and the aberrant Boat-billed Heron.
  • Night Herons are nocturnal feeders. The Black-crowned Night Heron (right) is found worldwide and is a colonial nester. Nelson photographed this one in Stone Harbor, New Jersey. The Yellow-crowned Night Heron is more diurnal than the BCNH. It eats crustaceans especially crabs and is only found in North and Middle America.
  • Reef Herons and are found in Africa and Eurasia. The Gambia was good for Reef Herons.

A more detailed review of this sub-group and many more images can be seen by clicking on Herons, Egrets & Bitterns

The Sunbittern is found along wooded streams in Central America where it catches fish in the same way as the Heron.

Hamerkop and Shoebill.

Two single species birds are also of interest.


Hamerkops and Shoebills are similar in appearance to the Boat-billed Heron. The Hamerkop is also known as the Whale-headed Stork. Both birds have large beaks which are hooked at the tip.

They are found in the wetland and swamp areas of Central and Southern Africa. The Hamerkop and Shoebill are aberrant species which evolved about 40 mya and probably relate back to the Stork lineage.

The Hamerkop (left) shown here was photographed in The Gambia. They appear to be compulsive nest builders constructing perhaps five massive nests per year, usually in the fork of a tree, whether they are breeding or not.

Rails and Crakes.

Rails are widespread and are found almost everywhere except the polar and desert regions. A feature of the Rallidae family, to which the Rails belong, is the rapid development of flightlessness, particularly in island dwellers. Another feature of the Rails, although not with other members of the family such as Coots, is that they tend to be very secretive.


The most primitive species in family Rallidae, the Nkulengu Rail of Africa, is a forest bird and it has been said that the evolutionary progress from generalisation to specialisation is from forest to aquatic forms. Forest Rails are difficult to find and see but some of the Wood Rails of the New World region are more readily seen. We saw the Grey-necked Wood Rail (right) in Trinidad and Costa Rica.

Other Rails and shorter-billed Crakes can be found, with difficulty, in marsh and swampy areas. Over 100 species have established geographical niches in many parts of the world. They are very adaptable feeders which take plant materials, invertebrates, aquatic animals and small reptiles.


The Buff-banded Rail (left) is found in coastal, thickly vegetated areas of Australia. This one was photographed in the Botanic Gardens in Sydney.

Crakes are short-billed Rails. The Corncrake, widely spread throughout Europe, is notoriously difficult to see and photograph but some of the other Crakes don't seem to be so secretive. Australia was a good place to see these birds.

I photographed Baillon's Crake (right) in Scheyville National Park, Sydney. It is Australia's smallest Crake and it favours well vegetated, brackish water.



Snipe are listed with Sandpipers and Shanks in family Scolopacidae. They favour marshy shorelines where they can use their exceptionally long, slender beaks to probe deep into the mud for food. They appear to be slightly less secretive than the Rails and Crakes. They have a world-wide distribution.


This photograph of the Common Snipe (left) was taken at Pennington Flash in the UK. Snipe are usually seen close to the edge of water where they probe around themselves making regular insertions which birders call "stitching".

Although Woodcock are listed in the same family as Sandpipers and Snipes they actually favour wooded habitats and are found in all regions except Africa and South America.

Small Marshland Birds.

In addition to the large and medium sized birds such as the Swamphens, Moorhens, Herons, Egrets and Bitterns, Rails, Crakes and Snipes “birders” visiting marshland areas will have been aware of smaller birds which favour this habitat.

I am carrying out a review of the smaller birds found in this habitat. This is an ongoing task which has accounted for 50 species so far. Click on Small Marshland Birds to see more detail.