The secret egrets

[This post was written but never posted after a trip to Florida in 2019, and recently updated to include Maine.]

Florida has three white egrets, the Snowy Egret, the Great Egret and the Cattle Egret. The Cattle Egret follows behind cattle for the insects stirred up by their passing, and in Florida they have learnt to follow the suburban lawnmowers instead!

This Great Egret flew through the swamp, thoughtfully doing a heron fly-past for my benefit:

Egret and heron

The smaller Snowy Egret is an exquisite little bird, equally at home in the swamp

Snowy egret

or by the seashore

Snowy egret

This one is actually running after its prey in the surf, instead of just standing still and waiting for its victim to come into range.

Those flowing plumes on the back of the head are the source of the name “egret”, after the French “aigrette”, for an ornament made of feathers.

These became so popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries that vast numbers of birds, especially in Florida, were shot to supply the fashion world. Eventually, the trade was brought to a halt in America by a successful campaign spearheaded by women:

PS: The Snowy Egret, Egretta thula, might remind you of the Little Egret, Egretta garzetta, of Europe and Africa, but they are different species, and the Great White Egret, Ardea alba egretta, is not even in the same genus, but more closely related to the herons.

PPS: Even the more pedestrian Cattle Egret, Bubulcus ibis, can be exciting out of context. In April I saw one in a flooded field in Maine, well north and inland of where it was supposed to be. It was in breeding plumage (the reddish areas), and the last breeding egrets seen in Maine were on the coast in 1995. It has never been reported in Oxford County on eBird until this sighting.

It was hunting in a flooded field, where it caught a small snake or huge worm:

Not to worry, though, their population is secure: even if Maine is a stretch, they famously expanded their range at explosive speed throughout North America during the 20th century, so they are a success story in the world of birds. Their populations reached saturation in many places, and then declined again, but they are classified as of Least Concern.

3 thoughts on “The secret egrets”

  1. ‘Great’ photos of such elegant birds. There’s a wildlife area 7 miles from here…old cranberry bogs, where there are herons & snowies & once I spotted a green heron.


  2. I used to see so many where I lived before moving back to my home town. I truly miss them. They are so beautiful, and my mother’s favorite bird along with the Crow.


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