Birds by the Bay: A holiday visit from the Snowy Egret
by Bob Shanman
On a clear, cold March afternoon, nine white birds were darting about on the muddy margin of del Rey Lagoon. The wind was blowing the breeding plumes on the back of their heads, and the males were flashing their snow-white crests. Each was trying to outdo the other as they jockeyed for the best feeding areas or to impress the females.
They had stopped at this rich feeding area on their annual migrations.
From their size and shape, it was clear the birds were members of the heron-egret complex. In that group, there are only two species to choose from — the Great Egret and the Snowy Egret. From their size, even at a distance, it was clear they were Snowy Egrets. Over the course of a year, they can be seen throughout most of the lower 48 states in the summer. Most move to the southern coasts to spend the winter. Surprisingly, they are found year round from Mexico to the tip of Tierra del Fuego, with breeding records from the far southern coast of Chile.
In the 1880s, it became fashionable for women’s hats to be decorated with the breeding plumes of egrets and other bird species. Birds were trapped and killed for their feathers. In the case of hummingbirds, the entire bird was the decoration. Great and Snowy egrets were hunted almost to extinction before state laws were passed that banned this practice. By 1910, the slaughter was over, and fortunately the threatened species has recovered.
In the South Bay, Snowy Egrets are found along large, wet areas such as the small marsh at Cabrillo Beach, Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park, Madrona Marsh, and both the fresh- and salt-water marshes at the Ballona Wetlands south of Marina del Rey. They readily move between these locales, and often will descend to the beach to feed in the surf zone. They are a regular visitor to King Harbor, where they roost on boats, rooftops and rocky areas.
Snowy Egrets are easily identified by their field marks (the characteristics that separate them from other birds), especially herons that are white at some point in their plumage cycle. They range from 22-inches to 25-inches in length (note that in ornithology, “length” is the measurement from the tip of the bill to tip of tail, and not the “height” of the bird when standing). Their wingspan is about 40-inches. Despite their size, and because their bones are hollow, they only weigh about 13 ounces. They have a dagger-like, black beak about 4-inches long, which is perfect for plucking their prey from the sand, the water or wherever they find food. Their legs are long and trail behind them in flight, making it easy to spot their yellow “feet,” which are called golden slippers. In breeding season, the back of the legs and slippers are a bright lemon yellow. In the accompanying photo, one can see the yellow eye, and the yellow skin patch (lore) between the bill and the eye. The yellow becomes duller as winter approaches, and will begin to brighten when spring hormonal changes start the next breeding cycle. Males and females look the same.
Snowy Egrets nest colonially in heronries, which may include other species in the family. They prefer stable sites for building a wide, shallow nest, 7-feet to 10-feet above the ground in a tree. The male brings the nesting material (sticks and twigs from the ground, stolen from other nests, etc.). The female builds the nest over a period of several days. Once the eggs are laid, both parents incubate the two to six pale, greenish-blue eggs. Eggs begin hatching at about 22 days. The young fledge (capable of flying) about 8 weeks after hatching.
Herons and egrets have a wide range of feeding habits that cover many habitats, and they are all fun to watch. The feeding birds at del Rey Lagoon would walk along, vigorously stirring the muddy bottom to disturb hiding critters. As the critters came out of the mud, the egrets would stab at them under water, or at a little fish swimming by. Some were picking insects off the exposed mud, or probing methodically into the mud for small crustaceans, which is how they feed in the surf zone. If one male got too close to another, a brief, but vigorous plumage display and chase took place with the loser looking for his own feeding space. At the end of the day, being a large communal group, the Snowy Egrets would fly off to a common roosting area to spend a peaceful night together, only to go at it again the next day. If you see them on the beach, approach slowly, sit peacefully, and be mesmerized by their play and display.
Bob Shanman is the former owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in the South Bay. He recently retired after 28 years and has been an avid birder since 1977. Details about the Snowy Egret are from “Birds of the World,” Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology. For more information about Snowy Egrets, go to one of several websites sponsored by the Lab: allaboutbirds.org (click on the background image and type in Sn, then select Snowy Egret); or try birdsoftheworld.org. In the selection box, type SNEG. A summary page should appear for Snowy Egret. ER