Sunday, January 24, 2010

Ella Bay’s Great Grey Ghost: The Great-billed heron Ardea sumatrana

Ella Bay is well known for its biggest bird, the endangered Southern cassowary.

Ella Bay is also home to another huge bird which is even harder to photograph, the Great-billed heron, a wary bird that has evaded my camera on many occasions at Ella Bay!
My own experiences with this bird generally consist of frustrating fleeting glimpses of the tail end of this huge bird disappearing into the mangrove swamps. The Great-billed heron certainly does not like human company and is quick to scoot if disturbed.

This Great-billed heron often hunts around the mouth of Barra creek which runs through the proposed resort complex/property development at Ella Bay.

Although I see this wary bird often in this area, the Ella Bay Pty Ltd wildlife surveys conducted by BAAM (Biodiversity Assessment and Management Pty Ltd) have failed to list it even once which I find unbelievable as the bird is over a metre tall!

Last November I decided to try and stalk this bird and confirm its identity.

Using a low depression in the sand as cover I crept up on this favourite early morning haunt of this bird in the hope it may be present. It was a gamble as I did not know if the bird would be there or not.

Crawling on my belly is something I thought I had given up years ago but I saw some movement in the trees and my pulse quickened!
Alas it was only a White faced heron Egretta (Ardea) novaehollandiae. Though they are a fair sized bird at close to 70 cm tall it wasn’t the prize I was hoping for and it looked like my grey suited metre plus friend from the mangroves had eluded me again.

As I scanned the creek side vegetation once more I noticed a large grey heron settling on a large dead tree.

Finally I had got close enough to this elusive bird to get some photos without being spotted. The Great-billed heron was having a bit of an early morning preen so I snapped away whilst it was distracted.

I must admit my camera is far from adequate for this sort of work!
Looking again from a distance you can see how well this birds grey camouflage hides it from the casual observer.
I managed to snap off a couple more shots but old eagle eyes spotted me and flew off north toward Biggerabarra Creek.
It was good to see that my grey ghost of the Ella Bay coast was indeed a Great-billed heron.

It was interesting to read a federal government document about Great-billed herons that stated:
Clearance of mangroves and other coastal vegetation, reclamation of mudflats and other forms of human disturbance are likely to cause desertion of breeding areas (Marchant and Higgins, 1990).
I wonder if putting 5000 people in Ella Bay would pass as…. “Other forms of human disturbance”… I think it might!

The Slater field guide to Australian birds states the Great-billed heron is “Rare on coastal rivers and mangroves” and “Appears to be shrinking from civilisation, so if you find one nesting, have a quick look and leave it undisturbed”.

At the end of the day you can guarantee that this massive bird will not be pleased to see 5000 odd new human residents to this fragile bay as is being demanded by property developer Ella Bay Pty Ltd.

Let’s hope Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett AM MP ensures that Ella Bay remains a wilderness area for its many special and endangered residents.

So much of our precious Wet Tropics coastline has been sacrificed to feed the never ending financial hunger of property developers already.

Cheers Russ

Please note I am using the correct Creek names used by Ma:mu traditional owners (The Mandubarra Mob) out of respect for a people whose love for this country exceeds even my own.


  1. Oh, I think you might be right about 5000 people being a disturbance! There's really not that much suitable coastline left for the animals.

  2. I agree Snail and this species seems to keep shrinking away from us as we keep encroaching on its habitats.In Singapore it is listed as critically endangered!2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity so its a great year to look at maintaining the biodiversity we currently enjoy!


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