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Herons and Egrets — How to tell them apart
Other Pages: Index of Pages The Egrets Page The Herons Page The Current Journal
A Confusion of Species
ON THIS PAGE Herons Egrets One of each
This page is an introduction to some of the birds I know in Texas
to the herons that I know in Texas, especially in Dallas, Texas, where I live. All egrets are a subspecies of the heron family, so calling a Great Egret, which is white, a "white egret" is correct but perhaps misleading.
I originally described this as a Great Blue Heron, but the colors are wrong. A reader insisted it was a Reddish Egret, but those rarely leave the coast; Dallas is far inland. I have since seen and photographed Reddishes along the South Texas Coast, so I can readily tell it's not a Reddish Egret. And now, finally, I've seen a few dozen Little Blues, too, I know what it is. And even if it isn't at all blue, it definitely is a Little Blue Heron.
Blue Herons, the smaller Little
Blue Heron, the also-medium-sized Tricolored Heron and
all three of the much smaller herons — the Black-crowned
Night-Heron and the Yellow-crowned
Night-Heron and Green Herons are obviously related in
shape, plumes and flying form, but the Little Blue, the Green and the Night
Herons' necks are shorter and chunkier.
The shorter-necked, squat, penguin-like birds, including the dark Little Blue Heron, mostly white Snowy Egret, green and red Green Heron, gray and brown and white Black-crowned Night-Heron and yellowish gray and brown Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are physically more alike than different.
The way I usually distinguish among these birds are the
colors of their legs, feet, bills and lores (the bill extension back to their
eyes) — usually from photographs later. I can never remember all this
when I'm watching these birds. I learn behaviors by watching the birds themselves.
Identifications I usually learn from studying my photographs later.
The point of all this confusion is that there is uncertainty about precisely identifying heron and egret species, some of which look a lot like each other even in bright sunlight. But there are a variety of other confusionary conditions. Rising and setting sunlight alters our color perception. The same bird at differing stages of its life look radically different. Because I am so thoroughly confused by their very existence, I will all but ignore the existence of morphs, variants in existing species forms.
When a friend told me last spring that she'd just seen
some "white herons" at the spillway, I nodded, knowing that what
she'd probably seen were white (the most common color) egrets. Although,
if she were an expert birder (I'm certainly not, and I didn't think she was.),
she may have been describing a white morph Reddish Egret, a juvenile
Little Blue Heron or any of our local four varieties of egret: Cattle, Little,
Snowy or Great.
Great Blue Herons are
gray with black head plumes, yellow bills, long fluffy neck plumes, reddish
pants (drumsticks/thighs) and sometimes epaulets and gray legs and feet.
Little Blues are
nearly black with blue lores and bills and dark feet and legs. Their young
are white with black-tipped wing feathers. See additional Little Blue identification
comments at the top and bottom of
Black-crowned Night-Heron adults
are white fronted, have dark, thick bills, reddish eyes, white crown plumes,
a black cap and back, and gray wings.
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron adults
are gray with white (sometimes appear yellow) swaths and across their faces
and on top of their otherwise black heads, with reddish eyes.
Green Herons are much smaller with not much that actually is green but a lot that looks green in the shade, where they like to hang out.
Little Blue Herons Aren't Always Blue
I thought I had, but after conferring with genuine
experts in bird identification learned that I have never seen
Egret, and if I haven't seen one, I
haven't photographed it, so it's not listed here. Reddish
Egrets have obviously reddish necks and heads and hang out on
the coast, rarely this far inland. But then that's probably true
about Tricolored Herons, too.
Great Egrets are
white with long straight yellow bills, black legs and feet.
Snowy Egrets have black legs, yellow feet,
long black bills and yellow lores, with fluffy white head and breast
Cattle Egrets are smaller, stockier, with shorter necks, black legs (except breeding adults, which have red-orange legs and feet) and short, yellow bills. Breeding adult Cattle Egrets have orange crowns, mid-backs, and breasts
Little Egrets are
white. Breeding adults have black bills, yellow-orange lores (in mid spring),
two long head plumes. Non-breeding adults have stringy breast plumes, dark
gray lores and bill, dark upper legs and yellow lower legs with yellow feet.
Little Egrets are an Old World species, meaning they're found in Europe, not
When I came upon this large flock of Cattle and other egrets [as well as herons and cormorants] on an island in an inner-city lake in San Antonio, Texas, I assumed that because of the black shadows under their wings and the proximity of adult Little Blue Herons, they were juvenile Little Blue Herons. But they are not.
I was confused. LBHs have fiddly bits
of black on the trailing edges of their wings, greenish legs (not
black like these) and two-tone bills of slightly different shape
and thickness. Some example of juvenile Little Blue Herons are on
Words and photographs
copyright 2006 and 2007
by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved.
I'm not an expert.
I'm a photographer