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Critically endangered birds-2 The White -bellied heron, Ardea insignis.

White bellied heron taken at Bhutan. Courtesy of Mahesh Lyer.  CC BY-SA 3.0 License

White-bellied Heron,Ardea insignis. Introduction

The White-bellied Heron ,is a species of large heron placed on the Critically Endangered list by the IUCN. It is also known by the alternative names of the Imperial heron or Great white bellied heron. It belongs to the family Ardeidae within the order of birds known as the Pelicaniformes. 

They are encountered in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas in India,northeastern Bangladesh, Burma and Bhutan. It occurs on undisturbed riverside or wetland habitat, where it is mostly a solitary species. 

White Bellied heron inside nest. Courtesy of Dr.Raju Kasambe. CC BY-SA 4.0 International License.

Description of the white bellied heron.

It is a large heron mostly grey  above and with a typical long neck. The crown is dark and they lack the black stripes that are noticeable in the Grey Heron, in breeding plumage, it has a greyish white nape plumage and elongated grey breast feathers with white centres. 

The bill is black,greenish near the base and tip and the face is greenish grey.  The bill is large and solid,an outstanding feature, which measures 15-18 cm six to seven and a quarter inches long. The chin and central portion of the underside are whitish in colour, hence the common name. It contrasts strongly against the dark grey colour of the back. The legs are blackish with scale-like texture on the tarsus. 

In flight it has a uniform grey upperwing and white underwing coverts,contrasting with the dark grey flight feathers. The rump appears paler grey.

After the Goliath heron this is the second largest heron species standing at 127 cm fifty inches tall. On the ground it walks slowly, moving its neck slowly while looking from side to side. 

White bellied heron in Bhutan. Courtesy of Arlettevan Berkel. Standard YouTube license.

Habitat and threats 

This species may be encountered in the wetlands of tropical and sub-tropical forests in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas of India and Myanmar. It also occurs in Bhutan's sub-tropical areas and was previously found in Nepal. It is a species much rarer than previously estimated and is now thought to be on the brink of extinction. It has recently been upgraded from Endangered to Critically Endangered  in 2007 by the IUCN.

The major threats to the species come from poachers and egg stealers. Another serious threat is the destruction and loss of habitat, the cutting of nesting trees and the drainage of wetlands. It is also prone and vulnerable to disturbance and habitat degradation as a result of agricultural encroachment,and human settlements. In more recent times it has been under threat from hydroelectric power developments,especially in Bhutan. 

lifestyle and breeding.

The specific diet of the white bellied heron is not well documented but it is thought to consist of crustaceans, insects and fish which it catches in and around fast-flowing rivers. They tend to feed alone,although pairs and family groups may feed in some areas. Feeding takes place mainly during the day light hours with the heron flying to feeding grounds and remaining there all day foraging before returning to the roost in the evening.

They breed and nest in trees commencing in March through until June. In Bhutan it has been found to prefer nesting sites near rivers,where the forests of Chir Pine make a suitable location for their large nests.  A small clutch of greenish-blue eggs are incubated by both parents. Once they have hatched the chicks are fed on regurgitated fish and will be ready to fledge in a further two to three months.

In Bhutan  the birds are found along the Punatsang  Chu River especially in Pho-Chhu river banks in Toewary Geway, along Kami Chhu River and in the lower Kheng. It may also be encountered in Madgechhu {Trongsa}. A recently discovered nest site in Nandapha Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh was found.

It is estimated that there are only 250 birds left in the world and only about 50 left in India. 

Conservation efforts.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Nature bean a conservation programme in Bhutan in 2003 to attempt to increase the rapidly decreasing population of the White Bellied Heron. In May 2011 the first White Bellied Heron Chick to be bred in captivity hatched in Bhutan as a result of this programme. The Government of Bhutan has recognized the river bed area of the Punakha-Wangdue  is an important feeding site for the species and has designated it as a protected habitat to preserve the species.

Conservation measures include making buffer zones around habitat which are taking place in other regions too. Only time will tell if they are enough to bring the species back from the brink of extinction. 

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