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The Egrets of White Rock Lake and Texas

Stories and photographs © 2012 and before by J R Compton
 

Egret Courtship Chase - copyright 2006 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved.

Plumed Snowy Egret Chases a less plumed Snowy Egret (female and male?)
 

Egrets are White Rock Lake's most common, year-round, large birds. Bright white with various colored beaks, legs and feet and differing plumes and neck lengths, our three resident egret species — Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and Cattle Egrets — are quiet, diverse, elegant and exotic.

The one additional species of egret, that as far as I know has not been seen here, is the Reddish Egret,. We saw and photographed them profusely — in full mating colors — near Matagorda Bay on the South Texas Coast.

The Great Egrets, the largest and most common egret at White Rock Lake, can be found singly, scattered almost anywhere along our shoreline, standing in groups, and flying alone or in formation in summer, fall, winter or spring. Snowy Egrets are comparatively easy to find, but there are fewer Cattle Egrets at the lake.

All the egrets sport intensified colors, plumes and gossamer 'Nuptial' plumes during mating season in late spring and early summer. Because of those elegant feathers, egrets were massively murdered during the turn of the 19th to the 20th Century, when their feathers, heads and selves were considered appropriate decorations for women's hats.
 

The Great Egret's long beak and longer, curving neck are its most distinctive features.
 

Great Egrets are the largest species and have great, long, slender necks (that when extended, are taller than they are), long black legs and big black feet. Their beaks are usually yellow-orange with yellow lores (around their eyes) with a sliver of black along top at the pointed end. Great Egrets eat fish, frogs, snakes, crawfish and large insects — or anything else alive that they can catch or stab with their long, pointed bill.

Much more info on Great Egrets may be found in Judy Evans' Bird facts: Great egret, but she has no pictures.
Wikipedia has much more info and pictures (small) and links to more species-specific stories about world egrets
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has excellent info but only one, overexposed image of Great Egrets.
 

Great Egret Flying Closer to the Fish - Notice the Big, Black
Feet and ungainly posture revealing its actual body shape.

 

Jaunty Snowy Egret - copyright 2010 by J R Comppton. All Rights Reserved.

Jaunty, Nearly Pyrotechnic Snowy Egret Strutting Its Stuff
 

The Snowy Egret is about half the size of the Great, with shorter black legs and distinctive orange feet. It sports elaborate head, chest and back plumes during mating season, and their bills and lores turn reddish and their feet orange. Plus, they can puff those out to seem more impressive almost any other time, also.
 

Snowy Egret with Just-caught Fish - copyright 2010 J R Compton. All Rights Reserved.

Snowy Egret with Just-caught Fish

Snowies eat crustaceans, fish and insects. Snowy and Cattle egrets have shorter necks than Great Egrets, but when they extend them, sometimes only their overall size differentiates them.

 

Bull with Cattle Egrets - Photograph Copyright 2012 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Bull with Cattle Egrets along the South Texas Coast
 

Cattle Egrets are smaller than Snowies, with orange-brown patches on their head, back and breast, yellowish legs and feet. They "walk like Egyptians," with a characteristic head dart at each step like many smaller birds, and they prefer grasslands more than places with water, but they spend time in both. They eat insects, but do not necessarily hang out with cows.
 

Breeding Cattle Egret

Brilliantly-colored Breeding Cattle Egret
 

I have — rarely — seen them at the lake, either skirting the swamp area behind the trees along Northwest Highway near Buckner Boulevard, well north of the lake proper, or around the lake itself, but they probably hang out in other areas, also.
 

Cattle Egret with Mohawk - Photograph Copyright 2012 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Cattle Egret in Breeding Colors - May 11 2010
 

I know less about Cattle Egrets, because I've seen and photographed them less often than the other two species that frequent this area, except at the Medical Center Rookery, where many Cattle Egrets join other birds, including all three local species of egrets, Little Blue and Tricolored Herons, Ibis, Anhinga, and both Black- and Yellow-crowned Herons.
 

Cattle Egret Flying - Photograph Copyright 2012 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Cattle Egret Flying   April 2012

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Socialization

Five Egrets in a Tree - copyright 2006 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved.

Egrets in a Tree  —  overlooking group fishing
 

Egrets seem to enjoy congregating in groups. We've seen as many as a hundred at one time during the day, and they roost in even larger groups at night. It is common to see large groups of egrets gathered on land, in trees or in the air, especially for their great socializations in December and January and for fishing.
 

Comparative Egret Sizes - Photograph Copyright 2012 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.  

Snowy Egret on the left with the much larger Great Egret on the right- L ate August 2012
 

They're a gregarious lot, at home in the company of other egrets species, as well as herons and ducks, and they don't seem to mind sharing fishing grounds with a variety of birds. But if one of those otherwise friendly species gets too close to a fishing spot claimed an egret great or small, watch out.
 

Great Egret Chasing Snowy Egret - Photograph Copyright 2012 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Great Egret Chases Snowy Egret  - L ate August 2012
 

In general, Snowy Egrets are more aggressive, and Great Egrets more easy going. But not always. I've never seen any blood-letting or injuries inflicted in these seemingly ceremonial "fights," which rarely last more than a few seconds, but I have observed such skirmishes to go on, tit for tat for many minutes, especially between species of similar size — like Snowy Egrets with Little Blue Herons.

Both these last two images are from late August 2012.
 

Egret Lying Down - copyright 2011 by J R Compton. All Rights reserve

Egret Lying Down During Gathering of Egrets
 

The only times I've ever seen Great or any other egrets lying down like this has been during their large gatherings usually held in December of January.
 
 

Egret X - copyright 2002 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved.

A party of Egrets Crisscross a Feeder Creek - March 3 2003, The more I look at
this formation, the more I think this must be a mating season meet 'n greet
.
 

Like almost every other species I've watched, they sometimes fight. Over territory, fishing spots, food or mates. It's difficult to determine the basis for them chasing around, bumping their upraised wings at something or squawking.

Angry egrets sometimes make a deep croaking noise like a bullfrog, usually as they fly away from me after I've accidentally discovered them much closer than I expected. They don't "talk" a lot, but it seems to be meaningful when they do.
 

Egrets Flying Spooked - Photograph Copyright 2011 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Spooked Egrets   January 19 2011
 

This is what happened in the same place as the earlier Egret Dance in the image above, when something — I couldn't figure out what — spooked them. Within seconds, the air was filled with spooked egrets.
 

Egrets Engage - Photograph Copyright 2012 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Egrets Engage - May 12 2011
 

I've never seen them rip or shred flesh, but I've only been tuned in six years. At White Rock, at least, they are often very much in public view, and they compose themselves appropriately. I don't know what they're like off by themselves. But I'll be watching and hope to learn more.

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Fishing

Great Egret Catching a Large Fish - Photograph Copyright 2007 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Great Egret with Large Fish - September 18 2007
 

Egrets, like herons, fish by standing for long minutes, wading in the lake or perched on a branch up out of the water or sometimes on shore. When they see what they want, they adopt a behavior we call "egret stealth mode," hunkering down and bending their long necks down near the surface.

At the right moment, their long, elegant necks uncoil and their sharp beaks jet out and spear or grab their prey, spreading their wings for balance.
 

Great Egret Bending Way Down - Photograph Copyright 2009 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Great Egret Bending Way Down - September 08
 

Foam Fishing Egret at Evening - copyright 2006 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved.

Snowy Egret Foam Fishing in the Spillway - June 03
 

I've watched egrets fish by standing in a shallow place for what seems like hours of no movement, then suddenly spear a fish.

The Long Way Down - copyright 2006 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved.

Their necks thicken noticeably when they swallow food - April 23 06
 

They juggle it in their beaks till it's in the head-first position going down, while they straighten and thicken their long throats. They tilt their heads back, drop it down and go fish for more.
 

Fish Fight - copyright 2006 by J R  Compton. All Rights Reserved.

Egret Fight Over a Fish
 

Often they feed alone, but if there's a lot of fish like after a big rain, there can be jostling for a good spot. Sometimes the competition is fierce, with wing flapping and chasing around on land and in air.
 

Hyper Snowy Footshake Fishing - copyright 2006 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved.

Hyper Snowy Footshake Fishing - June 11 06
 

The smaller, faster moving, Snowy Egrets are usually energetic, even hyper in their fishing antics. I've seen one that likes to fish in the creek near the Boathouse dance and charge around out there, shaking its foot forward in the water like a fisherman's lure. In lucky streaks it appears to catch something every few seconds.

It's comical to watch, and almost too fast to capture with a camera. Holding still enough for a click, they are unremarkable. Darting about, they are blurs.

I've seen other, calmer Snowies hunker down to enclose a surface area with cupped wings, though it seems more a desperation move than standard operating procedure. The time I saw that behavior I was too busy being awed to snap photos.

Probably because their lives depend upon it, egrets are amazing fishers.
 

Egret Tip-toe Fishing in Sunset Bay - Copyright 2007 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Tiptoe Fishing in Sunset Bay at Sunset - May 25 06
 

On a late May day with Wind Warnings On Area Lakes, I was amazed to see many Great Egrets fly out into Sunset Bay, hover nearly weightless, carefully controlling their altitude as they tiptoed lightly over the waves. When they saw what they wanted, they plunged their heads into the surf, and pulled out plunder.

Note the upcurled primary feathers (at the far ends) and ruffling of mid-wing feathers as the bird levitates just off the water. This elegant dance is proof of precision flying ability.

The day I shot this, I also saw egrets perched on trees out in the bay, watching, waiting, apparently taking turns flying out to where more desirable fish swam. Without landing, they'd pluck it out, and fly back to their perches, repeating the procedure in turns for hours.

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Flying

Great Egret Flying with Stick for Nest - Photograph Copyright 2009 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Great Egret Flying with Stick For Nest
 

Egrets jump up to fly. In the air, they trail their long feet well beyond their body for distance or speed flying, then drop gear as they approach landing. Sometimes when flying low, they don't seem to mind dragging a few primary feathers in the wet as they glide elegantly along.

Moon Dipping Egret - copyright 2006 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved.

Great Egret Dipping Bright Wings in water so dark, we can't see its legs


In the air, egrets are beautiful. Their flights and flight attitudes are distinctive and diverse. I still think of a close fly-over as a blessing, and I am blessed almost every week.
 

Egret Aloft - copyright 2006 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved.

Great Egret Flying
 

You can't always tell how long an egret's neck is when they're aloft, because all species fold their necks back for improved aerodynamics, making their necks look shorter and their bodies stubbier.
 

Snowy Egret Flying - Photograph Copyright 2009 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Snowy Egret Flying
 

Snowies and Greats are all white. If it's tall, and it stands serenely and moves slowly and carefully, it's probably a Great Egret. If it's small and darts around quickly, almost as if it were dancing, it's probably a Snowy Egret. Snowies are feisty and often willing to engage any Snowies or herons including the much larger Great Egrets in battle.

Intriguing how neck-tucked egrets more resemble some strange species of stubby flying penguin with long, long beaks than their long, lean selves. In the fully tucked mode, they look like the littler, squatty-body herons than anything slender.
   

 Cattle Egret Flying -

Breeding Cattle Egret Flying Over the Rookery

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Courtship

Reddish Heads-up Display - Photograph Copyright 2009 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Reddish Egrets in Mutual Heads-up Display in Matagorda on the Texas Gulf Coast - late April 2009

Reddish Egrets are Texas' only egret species that do not live and hunt in Dallas, Texas. Nope, these amazing creatures only live along our extensive coastline, where we found these.

Great Egret Tending Nest - Photograph Copyright 2009 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Great Egret Tending Nest - April 2009
 

But it's not until the egrets do something like the ones in the photograph below that mating season really begins. Pay attention. It goes fast once they signal by pointing their bills up.
 

Egret Bill Up Display - Copyright 2007 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Great Egrets in Bill-up Display
 

I'd never noticed this 'heads-up' egrets courtship displays before this time, but I've been watching and photographing closer and more carefully this spring (2006) than ever before, as I slowly learn my new camera. All while reading the Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior, which goes into great deal about what egrets do.
 

Egret Racket - copyright 2006 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved.

In a variation of the Bill-up Display, a Great Egret opens its beak,
then brings its head forward and down while uttering a noisy croak.
 

Imagine my surprise to read about these birds' bizarre courting behaviors one night, then seeing those same strange actions the next day. Glad the Universe nudged me to notice and photograph them for these pages.

Holding their heads high, with their bills pointing nearly straight up, means they are ready for mating — and not at some future date, but right now. Stretching their heads up and back, then popping them down is a behavior that may emphasize their head and chest plumes.

Before I figured out this was a mating dance, the strange chases that immediately ensued made no sense. Now they seem obvious, if almost X-rated.
 

Cross Egrets

Crossing Egrets
 

After holding back their heads to show they were interested in doing it, one large angular bird chases another smoother bird around the lower Steps area of the White Rock Lake Spillway — in plain sight of anyone who pauses as they walk over the walking bridge there.
 

Elegant Egret Chase - Copyright 2007 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Elegant Egret Chase
 

This used to be my favorite image of the series, maybe of this entire page, before I added newer, bigger images, but I still like it. They're so close and moving so fast I couldn't keep them in the frame. I like the little egret standing nonchalantly by as the bigger, Great Egrets, swoop in big, white-winged action across the scat striped concrete slanting down to the raging spillway below.

It may be my imagination, but doesn't the posture of the bird on the bottom below, look like sexual submission?
 

Egret Attack

Egret Attack or Mating Foreplay?
 

These first of two quick photographs, spanning only a few seconds, are as close as I've got to photographing their actual breeding. Like many birds, it's quick.

I did not think so the first several dozen times I looked at these photos, but what these birds appear to be doing make sense in the context of breeding and not much sense any other way. They were chasing, but there was no fight in it.
 

Winged Aggressor

Caught in the Act?
 

I've seen grackles fight and mate in the seconds to minutes after their head-up behaviors, and although these birds are much bigger and more elegant, the same sequence occurs with egrets.

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Snowy Egret Ruffle

Doing The Egret Rouse
 

I don't' think this particular display has anything to do with mating, but then I've never been an egret. I think it is just an egret shaking all over — stretching, if you will. Dogs do it, birds do it, even us people do it sometimes. It's just that Great Egrets have so much more texture to put into the writhing movement of it.
 

Baby Pictures

Snowy Egret Parent with Eggs - Photograph Copyright 2009 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Snowy Egret Parent with Pretty Blue Eggs
 

Great Egret with Downy Young Great Egret  - Photograph Copyright 2011 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Downy Young Great Egret — May 2011
 

Great Egret Chicks Still in the Nest - Photograph Copyright 2009 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

Great Egret Chicks Still in the Nest
 

Juvenile Great Egrets - copyright 2009 J R Compton. All Rights Reserved

Fledged Juvenile Great Egrets
 

Young Cattle Egret - Photograph Copyright 2012 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction in Any Medium Without Specific Written Permission.

What I believe is a juvenile Cattle Egret
 

When I first saw this bird hunting along the edge of White Rock Lake at Sunset Bay, I hoped it was a little Little Blue Heron, but I am now sure it is instead a young juvenile Cattle Egret. The two are very difficult to differentiate at this early stage, but this one walked in the exaggerated 'Egyptian' style of Cattle Egrets, and its bill is more orange than gray. Usually a little later in their development, Little Blue Herons develop areas of dark blue on their field of white. The blue areas get bigger and bigger until they take over.

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All photographs taken with my new Nikon
D200 unless marked with an S (for Sony F707)

All words and photographs copyright 2006 to 2012
by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved.
No Reproduction in any analog or digital medium
allowed. I will happily sell prints of
any image on this site.

 

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