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DallasArtsRevue J R's New White Rock Lake Journal
OTHER PAGES: Index Herons vs. Egrets explains the differences Herons Bibliography The Current Journal
ON THIS PAGE: Socialization Fishing Flying Courtship & Mating
Egrets are White Rock Lake's most common, year-round, amazing bird. Bright white with various colored beaks, legs and feet and differing plumes and neck lengths, our three egret species — Great Egret, Cattle Egret and Snowy Egret — are quiet, diverse and exotic.
The Great Egrets, the largest and most populous, can be found singly, scattered almost anywhere along our shoreline, standing in widely spaced groups, and flying alone or in formation in summer, fall, winter or spring. Snowy Egrets are comparatively easy to find, and there are comparatively few Cattle Egrets here.
All the egrets sport intensified colors, plumes and flossy feathers during mating season, which is in late spring and early summer. Because of those elegant featherations, egrets were massively murdered during the turn from the 19th to the 20th Century when their feathers, heads and selves were considered decorations for hats.
Great Egrets are the largest species and have great, long, slender necks, long black legs and big black feet. Their beaks are usually yellow-orange with yellow lores (around their eyes) with black along top at the pointed end. Great Egrets eat fish, frogs, snakes, crawfish and large insects.
The Snowy Egret is about half the size of the Great with shorter black legs and distinctive orange feet. Both species sport elaborate head, chest and back (red) plumes during mating season, their bills and lores turn reddish and their feet orange. Snowies eat crustaceans, fish and insects.
Snowy and Cattle egrets have shorter necks than Great Egrets, but when they extend their necks, sometimes only their overall size differentiates them.
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 eat insects, but do not necessarily hang out with cows.
I've seldom 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, and around the lake itself, but they probably hang out in other Dallas areas, also.
I know less about Cattle Egrets, because I've seen and photographed them less than the other two species that frequent this area. I saw two of them together only once that I knew I was watching Cattle Egrets, but as soon as they were within six feet of each other, one flew away.
Egrets seem to enjoy congregating in groups. We've seen as many as 70 at one time during the day, and they sleep in even larger colonies, as many as a hundred. It is common to see large groups of egrets gathered on land, in a tree or in the air. 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.
Like almost every other species I've watched, they sometimes fight. Over territory, fishing spots or mates. It's difficult to determine the basis for them chasing around, bumping their upraised wings at something or squawking.
An angry egret makes a deep croaking noise like a bullfrog. They don't "talk" a lot, but it seems to be meaningful when they do.
I've never seen them rip or shred flesh, but I've only been tuned in a couple of 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 find them out, 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 and spear 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 around on land 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 amazing fishers.
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 desireable 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 flap elegantly along.
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.
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 them look shorter and their bodies stubbier.
Intriguing how neck-tucked eegs 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.
Courtship & Mating
But it's not until the egrets do something like the ones in the photograph below that mating season really begins. Better pay close attention. It all goes pretty fast once they signal by pointing their bills straight up into the air.
I'd never noticed this 'heads-up' egrets courtship displays before, although I've been watching them for years. 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 discusses many species, including these.
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 is my favorite image of the series, maybe of this entire page. 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.
taken with my new Nikon
D200 unless marked with an S (for Sony F707)
All words and photographs
copyright 2006 and 2007
by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved.
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I'm not an expert,
yet. I'm just another
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