Great Egrets: Putting on a bird ballet

by Anders Gyllenhaal
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Our trip along the storied Montezuma wildlife drive in upstate New York had been all but devoid of birds the first hour. Then we turned the corner at the halfway mark and came upon a scene that instantly made up for the quiet start.

Two dozen Great Egrets stood clustered in a shallow pond as if in a ballet rehearsal. They moved along in groups of threes and fours in precise formation. With their long thin necks lining up one minute and crisscrossing the next, they seemed choreographed for elegance.

Great Egrets are such compelling birds to watch – and they don’t seem to mind an audience that keeps its distance. Much of the time, they prefer to forage alone, researchers say. But they will come together in small groups when there’s plenty of fish. From time to time, they’ll form big flocks like the one we came upon at Montezuma.

They aren’t hard to find all across the wetlands in the United States. Although hunted nearly to extinction during the feathered-hat craze of the late 1900s, migratory protection laws have helped Great Egrets become one of the strongest wading bird species today.

They’re flexible and adaptable, enabling them to adjust to the habitat loss that has undermined other species. The North American Waterbird Conservation survey estimates that there are 180,000 breeding Egrets in the U.S.

The egret’s green eyes in breeding season

They stand out in marshes and coastal areas — sheer white, with yellow beaks, long dark legs and a wingspan of almost 5 feet. During the spring breeding season, the area around their eyes turns lime-green, a striking accent that signals their readiness for mating.

The day of our ballet, the egrets were nearing their migration south, which meant they were busy loading up on food. Their necks would extend forward in their search for motion in the water. They’d move almost imperceptibly to keep from alerting their prey.

Then with breathtaking speed, they’d strike at the surface of the water. Once the splash had settled, you’d see whether they had caught a fish. In one gulp, they’d down their meal and move on to the next strike.

Here’s a gallery of the scene that made our day:

 

 

 

 

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