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The Comb-crested Jacana and its abnormally long toes

Bird Photography with marysejansenart

The bird that seems to walk on water!

Comb-crested Jacana and Water Snowflakes by Maryse Jansen
Comb-crested Jacana and Water Snowflakes

Lily Trotters

‘What a peculiar bird!’, I’m thinking, as I am laying eyes for the first time on a Comb-crested Jacana. I’m travelling through Cape York and on a walk in a conservation area that contains a lagoon with lots of water lilies. It is a beautiful setting and there is a variety of waterbirds present. But where most waterbirds swim in the water, these ones appear to walk on it!

I can see how they got their nickname Lily Trotters as the Jacanas literally walk around on floating vegetation, such as these waterlily pads! I see more and more of them, the longer I look. It is a precarious task to walk on these unstable surfaces and the birds are equipped with extra large legs, feet and toes to enable them to do so. It gives them a funny gait, but they have adapted well and pick their way around swiftly. Another name that is commonly used for them is Lotus Bird.

Comb-crested Jacana Foot by Maryse Jansen
The long toes of the Comb-crested Jacana

Feeding and Flying

They are obviously looking for food. And as they do so they continuously bob their head and flick their tail which makes their movements even funnier. The Jacanas feed on aquatic insects, seeds and aquatic plants, picking it all off the floating vegetation.

You might expect that these long legs and toes would impact their ability to fly. This is not the case. In flight, the long legs trail behind their body and don’t appear to be a hindrance as they are perfectly capable of flying long distances. They are not migratory birds but they can be a bit nomadic and individual birds sometimes choose to show up in unexpected places a long way from their normal range.


This waterbird inhabits lagoons and ponds with floating vegetation with a clear preference for the warmer, northern areas. They do show up at times in more southern areas down the east coast of Australia. Living in south-east Queensland that makes encounters close to home quite uncommon. When I’ve seen them, it is just 1 or 2 individuals and not a large group like that time in Cape York.

This is one of those occasions. I am actually at my local dam taking photos of dragonflies when I suddenly spot a Comb-crested Jacana! I switch my attention and the focus of my camera to the bird for a while, what a great opportunity! These birds move so fast and with the constant head-bobbing they don’t make it easy to get a good shot. But the backdrop for the image is fantastic, as it’s picking its way along the pads of the Water Snowflakes.

Water Snowflakes are beautiful, small, fringed water lilies. The abundance of them, combined with the depth of field, do create the illusion in the photo that it’s snowing. You can see the result in the featured image of this post.

Appearance and Breeding

The red fleshy comb on the forehead gives the Comb-crested Jacana its name. Both sexes have one. The male and female Jacana are generally similar in appearance. The female is just slightly larger and brighter in colour then the male. Adult birds have a black head, back and breast band. They have a white face, throat and belly and brown wings. Around the eye and lower part of the throat they have a faint yellow-orange coloured tinge. Juvenile birds have a rufous crown and may have a rufous-black breast band. Their comb is much smaller and darker.

Comb-crested Jacana Adult and Juvenile by Maryse Jansen
Comb-crested Jacana Adult (right) and Juvenile (left)

Male Comb-crested Jacanas build their nests on the floating vegetation. Females can mate with multiple males and lay 3-4 eggs in a clutch. The males do the rest of the work and incubate the eggs and look after the chicks. The young hatch quite well-developed and can pretty much feed themselves straight away, but the father remains very protective of them for some time. When he feels that his offspring is in danger, he will take the chicks under his wings and carry them to safety.

Come for a walk and enjoy a surprise encounter with a Jacana

As the Jacanas are certainly not a common sight around here, I don’t expect to see one today, during my visit to a beautiful wetland. The place is dominated by Purple Swamphens actually. I also spot several Egrets and a lone Pied Cormorant. While I am filming a Purple Swamphen, suddenly a Jacana appears in the shot! What a nice surprise! It doesn’t stay in my sight for long as it quickly disappears behind the reeds again. Watch the video below to see this special moment in episode #20 of ‘Come for a walk in the Australian Bush’ and peek ‘Through the Reeds’ with me!

If you are interested in purchasing ‘Comb-crested Jacana and Water Snowflakes’ or would like to see what the image looks like on the various products, please head to my shop.

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