R Compton dot com images ideas words websites contact resume links meta prices DallasArtsRevue Search
THIS PAGE Socialization Fishing Flying Courtship & Mating
BABY PICTURES: Great Snowy Cattle Egrets
OTHER PAGES INDEX Herons vs. Egrets — the differences Herons Bibliography The Current Journal
OTHER INDEXES Courtship & Other Bird Displays & Behabiors
The Egrets of White Rock Lake and Texas
photographs © 2012 and before by J R Compton
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
the 19th to the
20th Century, when their feathers, heads and selves were considered
appropriate decorations for women's hats.
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
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.
about half the size of the Great, with shorter black legs and distinctive
orange feet. It sports elaborate head, chest and back
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.
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.
smaller than Snowies, with orange-brown
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.
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.
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
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
trees or in the
air, especially for their great socializations in December and January
and for fishing.
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,
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
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 or January.
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.
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.
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.
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
or grab their prey, spreading their wings for balance.
I've watched egrets fish by standing in a shallow place for what seems like hours of no movement, then suddenly spear a fish.
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.
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
and in air.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
That are not good for any flying yet, but here we can see the structure of this young egret's wings.
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.
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.