Really Great Egrets -July 2018

by: Virginia Andrews

Stately waders, those Great Egrets. With brilliant white plumage they stalk though our marshes, walk the edges of island ponds and sometimes gather on sandy flats along the harbor. Their long, long, long necks extended, they look as if they are peering over an invisible fence into neighboring shallows.

They are a global species, with representatives on every continent but Antarctica. Called by different names in Europe and divided into four subspecies, they live in tropical zones worldwide. In many temperate zones they are seasonal migrants. They come north to breed, nesting in large colonies, often mixing with other herons. There is even a rookery on Nantucket.

Photo by Nicole Harnishfeger

But what’s so great about them? In birding lingo, “Great” or “Greater” in a name is about size. It’s not a value judgment. The Great Egret is a big bird compared to most other herons. But they are also graceful, undeniably beautiful and the subject of many a photo and painting. But beauty can be a problem as much as an advantage. For Great Egrets it was nearly their undoing, yet also proved to be their salvation.

In the breeding season Great Egrets are at their showiest, with bright, lime-green lores extending from the eye to the base of the bill. Even more spectacular, they grow extra-long, nodding white plumes. These “aigrettes,” composed of 35 strands of slim feathers, grow from the scapular area of the birds’ back. In courtship the male dances, throws his head back, and raises these plumes up in the air, fanning them out like a peacock. Even after the eggs are being incubated, the raised feathers are displayed as a greeting when the birds change places on the nest.

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