by Kyle Sweet, The Sanctuary Golf Club, Florida Master Naturalist
The Snowy Egret, a beautiful, graceful, small egret that was nearly decimated in the late 1800’s by plume hunters, is now more widespread and common than ever. As a year-round resident to our barrier islands, the Snowy Egret is one that you can enjoy seeing in the wetlands, along the open beach and sometimes in open, wet fields after our heavy Florida rains.
Similar to the Reddish Egret, the Snowy Egret will vary its feeding behavior for the sit and wait approach to walking or running in shallow water to chase its prey. In open fields they may also follow cattle or large animals to grab prey as the insects are flushed out by the walking animals. Not as common, the Snowy Egret has been seen in flight hovering over the water, spotting its prey and diving to catch a meal.
The diet of the Snow Egret is quite varied and includes fish, insects, crustaceans, frogs, snakes, snails, worms, lizards and rodents.
The Snowy Egret breeds on the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coast, often nesting in colonies with other heron species. The male selects a breeding area and the pair work together to build the nest. The female lays 3-5 eggs and both share incubation duties. The eggs hatch in approximately three weeks and both parents care for the chicks until they fledge after about a month.
As mentioned previously, the plume trade in the late 19th century nearly destroyed the Snowy Egret. In the early 1900’s hunting for plumes was curtailed in the United States but unfortunately hunting continued in Central and South America, thanks to the European plume trade. Once hunting stopped all together, populations rebounded quickly and their range even extended. The biggest threat to the Snowy Egret now is habitat loss, as millions and millions of acres of wetlands have been destroyed since colonial times. Snowy egrets are considered heavy feeders and due to this, they are especially sensitive to environmental changes that reduce available prey. Coastal wetland conservation is a must to insure a future for this small, elegant wading bird.
Hardly a day goes by when I don’t see a “snowy” on the golf course. This abundant bird has quite a survival story. Thanks to a widespread breeding range and protection, it’s recovery over the past century has been very successful. Keep your eyes out for the bright yellow feet and black legs of the Snowy Egret. You might get your sighting at the beach, an island freshwater swamp or a saltwater wetland. Wherever the case, you’re likely to see one very soon!
Four Keys to ID
1. Size and Shape – Medium – sized heron with long, thin legs and long slender bill.
2. Color Pattern – Adults are all white with a black bill, black legs and yellow feet. Immature Snowy Egrets have duller, greenish legs. Both have a patch of yellow skin at the base of the bill.
3. Behavior – They wade in shallow water, spearing fish and other small aquatic animals. They sit and wait for prey as well as run through the water chasing their prey.
4. Habitat – Most common along the East Coast of the U.S. They nest colonially, often with other small herons on mudflats, beaches and wetlands. Are also seen foraging in wet agricultural fields and along lake edges.
During the breeding season, adult snowy egrets develop long wispy feathers in their backs, necks and heads. In the late 1800’s, these plumes were valued at twice the price of gold per ounce at the time.
Snowy Egrets sometimes mate with other heron species such as Tri-colored Herons, Little Blue Herons and Cattle Egrets, resulting in hybrid offspring.