The Great Florida Outdoors: The Beautiful Snowy Egret

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By Dr. Robert Norman, Clinical Professor, Dermatology, Nova Southeastern University

On a recent trip with my niece Michelle and my daughter Fionna to the Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach, I was fortunate enough to photograph wood storks, egrets, green herons, and a great many other marvelous creatures. The snowy egret is in the family of Herons, Egrets, and Bitterns.

The snowy egrets are medium-sized herons with long, thin legs and long, slender, bills. Their long, thin neck sets the small head well away from the body. Adult Snowy Egrets are all white with a black bill, black legs, and yellow feet. They have a patch of yellow skin at the base of the bill. Immature Snowy Egrets have duller, greenish legs.

Their habitat includes marshes, swamps, ponds, and shores. The bird is widespread in many types of aquatic habitats, including fresh and salt water; in coastal areas, and may seek sheltered bays. Inland, a snowy egret favors extensive marshes and other large wetlands but sometimes forages in dry fields.

It nests in colonies in trees, shrubs, mangroves, sometimes on or near the ground in marshes. The females usually have 3-5 eggs, pale blue-green. Both parents feed the young. The last young to hatch may starve. Young may clamber out of the nest after 20-25 days of incubation, probably unable to fly before 30 days. Male and female Snowy Egrets take turns incubating their eggs. As one mate takes over for the other, it sometimes presents a stick, almost as if passing a baton. Both parents continue caring for the young when they hatch.

During the breeding season, adult Snowy Egrets develop long, wispy feathers on their backs, necks, and heads. In 1886 these plumes were valued at $32 per ounce, which was twice the price of gold at the time. Plume-hunting for the fashion industry killed many Snowy Egrets and other birds until reforms were passed in the early twentieth century. The recovery of shorebird populations through the work of concerned citizens was an early triumph and helped give birth to the conservation movement. With protection, populations recovered. In recent decades, it has an expanded breeding range far north of historical limits. It is probably still expanding in range and increasing population.

I was able to capture a lovely bird, sporting a vibrant green lore—the area between the bill and the eyes—indicative of the breeding season. As noted, the bird will also display long, elegant plumes on its back shown here which are used in courtship displays. Like a peacock, the feathery plumes spread out like a fan. After the breeding season, these long feathers disappear.

Adult Snowy Egrets have greenish-yellow feet for most of the year, but at the height of the breeding season their feet take on a much richer, orange-yellow hue. The bare skin on their face also changes color, from yellow to reddish.

Snowy Egrets sometimes mate with other heron species and produce hybrid offspring. They have been known to hybridize with Tricolored Herons, Little Blue Herons, and Cattle Egrets.

Snowy Egrets wade in shallow water to spear fish and other small aquatic animals. While they may employ a sit-and-wait technique to capture their food, sometimes they are much more animated, running back and forth through the water with their wings spread, chasing their prey.

I recommend you subscribe to this web site for the American Bird Conservancy at abcbirds.org. You will get sent a weekly newsletter to learn your birds! Where can you find the beautiful Snowy Egret?

Get out and enjoy The Great Florida Outdoors!

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