All summer long on my commute home from work, I had been seeing a group of Great Blue Herons in a marshy, beaver pond right off the highway. I was surprised that there were so many together, usually three to six at a time, feeding in the water.
One day, I noticed other birds with them that looked just like the herons, but were pure white. A little research proved the birds were Great Egrets—similar in size and appearance to the Great Blue Heron, but with snow-white plumage. Each day I’d see anywhere from three to five birds standing and feeding right alongside the herons. Unfortunately, the highway was too busy to pull over and really observe the birds, but I felt lucky to see them as I whizzed past.
Great Egrets are magnificent birds, standing three feet in height with a four-foot wingspan. They are the largest of the five species of egrets in the U.S. They can be identified by their large size, large yellow bill and long, black legs. During breeding season, both males and females develop a long cloak of plumes that extend over the back and past their tails. The National Audubon Society was partly formed to protect the birds from being killed for their beautiful, pure white plumes and in 1953, chose the Great Egret in flight as their symbol.
The Great Egret is now a common bird in the U.S. and can be seen in a variety of wetland habitats, including marshes, coastal tide flats, rivers, streams and flooded fields. They feed mostly on fish, but will also eat frogs, crayfish, small mammals and reptiles. They stalk their prey slowly and methodically, then strike out quickly to stab with their long bill. Their nests are built of sticks and greens and can be found in trees or shrubs with other herons and egrets. Great Egrets are migratory in their northern ranges, but are very influenced by temperature. During mild winters, they may stay in their summer breeding grounds as long as the waters stay open. If the waters freeze, Great Egrets will migrate southward, either alone or in loose v-shaped flocks.
I haven’t seen the egrets in the beaver pond for about a week now, and I don’t know if they’ve moved south yet or not. I hope I see them again before the snow flies!