Great Egret

by Kyle D. Sweet, CGCS

The Great Egret, Ardea alba, also known as the Common Egret or Large Egret, us a popular year-round resident of the west coast barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva.

As with several other Herons and Egrets that we’ve covered in recent “Sweet Shots”, Great Egret populations were decimated in the late 1800’s when its plumes, especially the aigrettes, were sought after for use in fashion. Conservationists intervened and put a stop to the slaughter. As a result, the Great Egret became the symbol of the National Audubon Society.

You can find the Great Egret in marshes, ponds, along still shorelines and mudflats. Basically, they are found in still, shallow water where they can either stand or walk while they wait for fish to come near. You will also see them throughout the terrestrial landscape, peering into thickets to find snakes, frogs and lizards. In both cases, they often sway their long, graceful necks back and forth while keeping their heads remarkably still just before they lunge at their prey. It’s definitely an entertaining behavior to watch.

The Great Egret begins to breed at the age of 2-3 years, often mixed with other wading birds. They take on a new look at breeding with long feathers that adorn their back and a patch of skin on its face that turns neon green. Often, these two characteristics make them a favorite subject of bird photographers during the breeding season.

They breed in colonies in trees close to the water in relatively large nests between ten and forty feet from the ground. The male Great Egret selects the nest area, starts a nest and attracts a female. Both sexes share in the incubation of the eggs as well as the regurgitation feeding of the chicks. The chicks fledge at around six to seven weeks.

The Great Egret is one that you’re sure to see on the islands very soon. Enjoy this large, bright white bird that is distributed all throughout the Southeastern United States and fortunately is in abundance here at home on our barrier islands.

Four Keys to I.D.

1. Size and shape – Tall, long – legged wading bird with a long, s-curved neck. Their neck is tucked in during flight and their long legs extend well beyond their tail.
2. Color Pattern – Their feathers are all completely white. Their bills are yellow – orange and their legs black.
3. Behavior – Great Egrets wade in shallow water or walk slowly alongside vegetation looking for prey. In both cases, as a meal passes by, they strike with super speed and make good use of their long neck and dagger – like bill.
4. Habitat – They are found in both fresh and saltwater habitats. Typically in the shallowest of the water in any area and often along the shoreline.

Cool Facts

The Great Egret is the symbol of the National Audubon Society, which is one of the oldest environmental organizations in North America. Audubon was founded to protect birds from being killed for their feathers in the days of the plume trade.

Aigrettes are the name for the long plumes that grow from the backs of the Great Egret during the breeding season.

The wide wingspan of the Great Egret makes its flight look effortless and graceful, but there is speed in that flight. The cruising speed of a Great Egret is around 25 mph.

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