Reddish Egrets - Ballet stars of the wading birds

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

We have four common kinds of wading birds in our region - herons, egrets, ibises, and spoonbills. They range in size from knee high Little Green Herons to chest high Great Blue Herons. Herons and egrets have long, sharp pointed bill. Ibises have bent, decurved bills. Spoonbills have bills shaped like spoons!

Herons and egrets stab their prey. Ibises and spoonbills wave their bills back and forth in the water until they feel prey and snap it up.

For the most part herons and egrets are either white in color or dark in color. Dark birds are generally some combination of gray, brown, blue, purple, and green. Most are widely distributed but we have one medium-sized egret restricted to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The Reddish Egret has two distinct genetic color patterns - snow white or reddish-gray. The dominant color, called a morph, is reddish-gray. Juvenile birds are either white or ashy gray with some rufous shades, fawn color or various vine-colored tints.

Separating the two color morphs from other similar herons and egrets could be a problem for many but the Reddish Egret is pretty much limited in distribution to coastal waters. It is very unlikely to find one more than a mile from the coast unless a tropical storm system blows it well inland.

The Great Egret is white and a bit larger than the white morph Reddish Egret and has a distinct yellow bill. Regardless of morph, the bill of the Reddish Egret is bi-colored being black at the end and pinkish near its face. The white Snowy Egret is somewhat smaller than a Reddish Egret and has a black bill and bright yellow feet - golden slippers! Adult Little Blue Herons have reddish necks and dark blue-purple bodies but are much smaller than reddish morph Reddish Egrets and have black bills.

The most conspicuous trait of Reddish Egrets is feeding behavior. Some would call them ballet stars. Others refer to them as lagoon dancers. In any event, they feed in shallow water. It is common to see them rapidly dancing across the shallow flats changing direction from left to right simultaneously flicking their broad wings creating shadows to make it easier to find frightened prey. Often, at the conclusion of a dance, they will freeze and spread their wings above the surface in front of them, creating canopies and shade to which prey will sometimes come seeking shelter!

I find Reddish Egrets most often on the Louisiana coast from August into October, primarily along the beaches in Cameron Parish. Most of these birds are juvenile birds dispersing from nesting grounds, probably located along the southern coast of Texas. I recently (October 2014) encountered a juvenile Reddish Egret at the Cameron, Louisiana Jetty Park on the rail of the park's fishing pier. This was the first time I had found a Reddish Egret practicing "pan handling", a behavior better associated with Great Blue Herons or Great Egrets. The fishermen give the "begging" birds unwanted fish or bait.

Reddish Egrets are not abundant. Wildlife managers estimate that fewer than 3,000 pairs nest annually in the USA with most nesting along the lower Texas coast. A few pairs are known to nest in Louisiana but more nest in Florida.

Jay V. Huner
Louisiana Ecrevisse
Boyce LA