The Great Egret, like the Great Blue Heron, is a large long-legged, long-billed wading bird. We are accustomed to seeing the blueish gray Great Blue Herons in the Edmonds Marsh, but every so often a Great Egret stops by. Most recently, one was in Edmonds early in November 2017. It stopped to feed alongside some of the herons and then made an appearance on the waterfront before moving on.
Edmonds birding records for the last 30 years include four sightings of a Great Egret in spring or fall: 2004, 2014, 2016, and 2017. As reports are getting closer together, they reflect an increased number of sightings of Great Egrets in both Snohomish and King Counties. The Great Egret is now a common sight in Clark County along the Columbia River, with a smaller number of birds being seen in Cowlitz County. There appears to be a range expansion underway, by a small number of birds, into the Puget Sound basin. So keep your eye out for a large white wading bird any time you are around water, particularly in late summer and fall. You might spot one of these newer visitors to our region.
The Great Egret has a number of subspecies and is widely distributed. It is found around the world in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
One nature writer refers to the Great Egret as the stately stalker. This bird hunts in standing or flowing water, moving slowly with a deliberate stalking motion. It also hunts by remaining stationary, with its neck extended, waiting for fish or other prey to come within striking range. This egret mostly eats fish, but also feeds on crustaceans, frogs, salamanders, snakes and aquatic insects. It will catch rodents and grasshoppers in open fields.
The Great Egret first breeds at two or three years of age. It usually breeds in mixed colonies with other wading birds, but sometimes nests in isolated pairs. There is a breeding colony at The Potholes in Eastern Washington. The species does not breed in Western Washington. The male selects the nest site, which is in a tree 10-40 feet above ground.His courtship displays are designed to first drive away other males and then to attract a female. He calls, engages in circular flight, and stretches his neck up with the bill pointed toward the sky.
Both sexes build the nest, which is a substantial platform of sticks. Both incubate the three to four eggs for 23-26 days. They then both feed the young by regurgitation. The young egret leave the nest after about three weeks and are be able to fly at 6-7 weeks of age.
The Great Egret will fluff its feathers and use the sun to absorb heat in cold periods. When it is warmer, it will employ gular fluttering or seek shade to cool down. It will occasionally do what cormorants do to absorb heat, which is to spread its wings and face into the sun, particularly during cool mornings. It flies slowly but with power. It will make just two wingbeats per second and maintain a cruising speed of about 25 miles per hour. The oldest Great Egret of record was banded in Ohio and was 22 years and 10 months of age when recaptured.
Some of the collective nouns for all egrets include congregation, RSVP, skewer, and wedge. My preference would be a stalk of egrets to acknowledge their foraging behavior.
More than 95 percent of North America’s Great Egrets were killed in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries for their breeding plumes. The Great Egret population rebounded quickly when hunting was banned with passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1913. Between 1966 and 2014, the population increased. This species is vulnerable to habitat loss and degradation, as well as to contaminated runoff from farm fields and sewage treatment facilities. Nevertheless, it is mobile and flexible as to habitat preferences. For conservation purposes, it is considered a species of low concern.
— By Carol Riddell
Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.