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The Great Little Egret Debate

Originally Posted: July 07, 2010

Eric Salzman

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Purple Martins. (Luke Ormand)

Southampton - The search for better looks (and better photos) of Tuesday's mysterious plumed egret has sent me on an exploration of the neighborhood Shinnecock shores, visiting spots that are new to me or that I haven't traversed in a long time.

Purple Martin (Luke Ormand)

I varied my usual route by cutting over to Bay Avenue, walking down to the town dock and, after vainly scanning the marsh and shoreline from that vantage point, returning via the Weesuck Creek shoreline, crossing a segment of marsh to reach the 'outer' bank of our pond. The tide was very low so it was easy to wade across the narrow neck where the water from the marsh drains out into the pond (and where, in a couple of hours, the tide will push back in). The few egrets that I could see were all Greats and one or two distant possible smaller egrets were just too far away and directly in the glare of the morning sun. I did spot a pair of Cedar Waxwings coming over the marsh and heading into the trees. These birds may just be starting to nest right now.

A locale that was new to me was the boat basin at Pine Neck landing. From this spot, it is possible to work one's way along the shore and bay edge of the Pine Neck Nature Sanctuary, formerly the De Ropp Estate. This property faces us on the east bank of Weesuck Creek but most of the marsh and shoreline is hidden from view from our side. Here it was possible to see that the Osprey nest (barely visible to us) has two flying young. This marsh is also home to some very vociferous Willets and considerable numbers of Saltmarsh Sparrows.

Both locales feature close-up views of martin colonies. The principal food of these giant swallows is dragonflies - mostly, it would seem, the Seaside Dragonlets which hatch in some numbers in the two marshes. But they also take butterflies including a surprising number of Red Admirals. You might think that the striking colors of these beautiful butterflies would signal that they are distasteful but apparently the birds do not subscribe to this theory. Included are photographs of a captured Swamp Darner, a Question Mark, and a Red Admiral, all being sacrificed to insure the future of the martin tribe. The shots are by Luke Ormand who was also looking for plumed egrets but took time out to document these elegant Purple Martin food preferences.

When is a Little Egret not a Little Egret?
A smallish white egret with a long nuptial plume or two has been hanging around Weesuck Creek and, since Snowy Egrets do not normally have such plumes, the bird was identified (by me) as a possible Little Egret. However caution has been advised as, it is said, Snowy Egrets can sometimes have long plumes (usually together with the short, ragged head and nape plumes that are normal on breeding Snowys). Also this bird appeared to have jet black legs and some yellowish on the base of the lower mandible, both possible points in favor of Little. The skin around the eyes and on the lores is yellow which favors Snowy. I also thought the bird was slightly bigger and the base of the bill somewhat broader than on a typical Snowy but this was hard to judge (and there were no Snowys in the neighborhood for comparison.

Great Blue Heron. (cowart.info)

How do you tell Little Egret apart from Snowy Egret or, for that matter, Reef Heron - now usually called Reef Egret (the three species belong to a super species and are closely related)? If the bare skin around the eye and on the lores is blue-gray, the answer is probably Little Egret. If the color is yellow (as it appeared to be on our Weesuck Creek bird), the issue is up in the air as Littles can show yellow skin. Most of the other features are variable or subjective.

One correspondent even wrote to me describing a plumed egret seen somewhere in Long Island that was deemed to be a Snowy because its plume or plumes were feathered! This would seem to imply that the Little Egret plume is not feathered but I don't believe that for a second. I've seen Little Egrets in the UK, France, Spain, Africa and Asia and the plume or plumes always looked white to me. A plume is by definition a feather.

In the meanwhile, Luke Ormand, who took the pictures, sent them to - of all people - Bill Maynard, the editor of Winging It (for which I write the "Books for Birders" column). Bill, in turn, sent it to Paul Lehman, the former editor of Birding Magazine and the person who hired me to work for Birding and Winging It! Paul has a slightly different take. He thinks that if it were a Little, the bill would look larger than it does. Even more tellingly, he points out that the yellow lores and feet are brighter on this bird than would be on a Little Egret (whose feet tend to be more of a greenish yellow). He also suggests that the bird is either an aberrant Snowy or a hybrid.

A hybrid? Why not. That would certainly explain a lot of things. If I'm not mistaken, Little Egrets breed in Barbados and occasionally mixed pairs of Little and Snowy Egrets are seen. I vote for a hybrid.

The other afternoon, a loud squawking sound from the marsh sent me running down in time to see two large Ardea herons flying up. They soared overhead and eventually out over the creek and into the misty distance - but not before I got some good looks. They were, let's say, funny-looking Great Blue Herons, rather streaky-looking with dark crowns and, as far as I could see, no reddish trousers. But the outstanding feature on both birds was a pair of bright white 'headlights' on the carpal joint (i.e., the bend of the wing). Now if you look at North American bird guides, you will not find Great Blue Herons illustrated with white 'headlights' but if you look in British or European guides you will find that the Grey Herons - apparently in all plumages - are almost always shown with this prominent feature!

I should say that Great Blue Herons are here on Eastern Long Island all year round but they are scarcest in June and July when most of the wintering and migrant birds have returned to their breeding colonies inland and to the north.

After the flap with the Little/Snowy Egret this past, it seems almost too much of a coincidence to bring up the Great Blue/Grey Heron problem. But once again, we have two members of a super species (or species pair), one in Europe, the other in North America, with a serious problem about how to distinguish them. In fact, Little Egrets are regularly seen and identified on this side of the Atlantic (although some of them may be aberrant Snowy Egrets or hybrids). But does anyone see or claim to see Grey Herons? If one showed up, what should we look for?

Enchanter's Nightshade (nwnature.net)

Young orioles showed up the other morning, moving through the tree foliage in a loose group - presumably all in a family. The easiest way to find young orioles is to listen for their distinctive calls. The first time I heard the double (tew-tew) or triple (tew-tew-tew) calls, I was genuinely puzzled as it resembles no other normal bird song or call. These birds - they usually come in small groups - always strike me as quite greenish perhaps because of reflected light from the leaves. If you look in the guide books, you won't find anything that quite matches this color and at first I thought I had something exotic. A closer look reveals the oriole shape and structure, wing bars, pointy bill, etc. The closest match in print is probably Orchard Oriole but our birds are Baltimores, not Orchards (Orchards turn up here only once in a while). Usually the young Baltimores travel with one or the other adult. whose presence gives the game away. The calls - distinctive young Baltimore sounds - seem designed to help the orioles, young and old, to stay together but are also a kind of begging: "I'm over here, dad, and I'm hungry! Additionally, these excursions seem designed to help the young birds learn how to find food for themselves.

The Congress of Young Crows has been regularly reconvening in the open area in front of the house. There are at least eight or nine birds that participate in these events so these are individuals from more than one nest. At first, I thought they might be looking for food. They occasionally peck at the ground or even fly into low bushes where they seem to be nibbling at berries or insects. Sometimes they stand quite still on the ground facing away from the others with heads tilted back and beaks open as if waiting for someone to come and fill it (as they are standing in full sunlight, perhaps they are sunbathing). As I watch these congregations, I have become convinced that they are mainly practice socialization for young birds. There is a certain amount of hopping around and even some flying up on to branches and jumping or flapping back down again. And there is an almost constant sequence of vocalizations in that nasal honking tone that is typical of young American Crows. They are, I think, sorting out their places in crow society!

Germander has started to bloom. Its delicate and somewhat exotic pink flowers sprout from a spike that emerges from a low cluster of pointy, smoky, lightly notched green leaves that sprout from moist soil just back of the marsh in an open area at the edge of the woods. Germander, also known as Wood Sage (the scientific name is Teucrium canadense) is in the mint family and like other members of the family, has a rather striking little flower with projecting stamens from where the upper lip ought to be and a broad extended lower lip which perhaps offers a landing pad for fertilizing insects. This is the narrow-leafed variety known as littorale; it is certainly one of our more unusual wildflowers.

Oriole. (ebirdseed.com)

Another strange wildflower currently in bloom is easily overlooked as it is an unpossessing green plant with only the tiniest of tiny white flowers. But it has a whopper of a name - Enchanter's Nightshade - that gives this modest-looking botanical specimen more than a touch of mystery. To add to the strangeness, it's not a nightshade at all and the enchantment is elusive. The tiny white flowers are on longish stalks or racemes and each petal has two tiny little lobes (which makes it appear - if you look through a magnifying glass - as though each flower has four petals) and long stamens. The seedpods are tiny little flat paddles with a curious fringe on each paddle; apparently these pods will stick to clothes or fur. This plant is in the Evening Primrose family although it looks nothing like the familiar Evening Primrose. Its Latin name, Circaea, obviously refers to the fabled enchantress Circe. But why is this plant associated with magic? What magic? How did Circe get a hold of a presumably New World plant many centuries before Columbus? Apparently Circe seduced sailors like Odysseus into sticking with her just like the seed pods of her magic plant which she magically obtained from far-off America.

Another striking local plant currently in bloom is Spotted Wintergreen which, with its two-toned leaves, looks like a hot-house plant recently removed from the rain forest. The flower is a nodding, white, waxy affair that look positively unreal. Spotted Wintergreen grows in the mixed duff of pine and oak trees in sandy, pine-barrens soils. The fact that it grows in our woods tells me that these woods are an extension of, not the rainforest, but the pine barrens.

Other flowers of early summer: Yucca, Queen Anne's Lace, Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), Rambler Rose (on its last legs) and the oddly named, blue-flowered Sheep's Bit (try saying that name several times quickly). Most of these are flowers of open areas and to find them I have to go to the edges of the property. The open area in front of the house is now too reduced by the encroaching woodland and too shaded during much of the day for most of these open-field plants to flourish.

I did a July 4th walk for SoFo (South Fork Natural History Society) at the Grace Estate, a walk that was focused on birdsong. It was not obvious that either birders or birds would show up but in fact there was a reasonable turnout and, with a little effort, we were able to pick out some typical songs and calls. Although peak singing season is past, there is often a revival of song in early July and I was banking on that when this event was scheduled. Many, perhaps most advanced birders do a lot of their bird finding by sound but a lot of people who enjoy watching birds struggle with the challenges of identifying the songs and calls. So the idea was to offer some help in how to recognize the common songs of our local birds and also to explain the distinctions and differing functions between songs and calls. But it's difficult to do a field exercise in avian vocalizations if the birds are not vocalizing or sounding off only once in a while.

Little Egret (arthurgrosset.com)

The walk started at 8 a.m. on Northwest Road by the wooded wetlands near Scoy Pond. At that hour of the morning, the air was still cool and a few birds - Yellowthroat, Catbirds, Chickadees - were singing. Further up on the trail, near Scoy Pond, we had glimpses of singing Yellow Warblers and calling Downy Woodpecker as well as glints of American Robins, Red-winged Blackbirds and distant Great Crested Flycatchers, Eastern Wood-pewees, Red-eyed Vireos and Red-bellied Woodpecker. Other birds heard were far-off Baltimore Orioles (probably young begging orioles), Brown-headed Cowbird, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jays, Crows and a calling raptor, probably a Cooper's Hawk. Plus a few unidentified calls and at least one mystery warbler (a possible Am Redstart but it didn't sound like one). Plus croaking frogs at the end of the pond.

At trail's end, on the bay opposite Barcelona Neck and the entrance to Northwest Harbor, we had good views of singing Prairie Warbler, always a nice find. Prairie Warbler is the singer with the unforgettable little rising chromatic scale repeated over and over again. This bird, seemingly offended by our intrusion, followed us a ways down the trail as he (yes, it was a male) escorted us out of his territory!

No Ovenbird, and only one or two Wood Thrush calls. By the time, we headed back on the trail, the heat of the day had overtaken both birders and birds. A veritable heat wave was upon us and the birds mostly closed down. Next time, I'll try to schedule this walk earlier in the season and earlier in the day!

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mojoman717 says::
Great article. Thanks.
Jul 9, 2010 6:47 pm


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