The Great Egret

This graceful bird is 3-1/2 feet tall with a 4-1/2-foot wingspan and stands out from any other found on Lake Martin. Photo by Kenneth Boone

Meet Lake Martin’s Showy Shorebird

The Great Egret on Lake Martin is easy to ID.

It is tall, graceful and majestic. Its plumage is stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb bright white. It has a long, thin “S” shaped neck; a long, thin yellow bill and long, thin black legs. It spends most of its time walking the bank on lakes and creeks and other wetlands. It’s so large that it is easy to spot from hundreds of yards away: 3-1/2 feet tall with a 4-1/2-foot wingspan. The only other large white bird on Lake Martin is the white pelican, and those look nothing like the Great Egret, which looks a lot like a Great Blue Heron, except that the Great Egret is a touch smaller and eye-catchingly white.

The scientific name for this bird, Ardea alba, is about as plain Jane as you can get. It means “white heron” in Latin.

So if you see a large white heron-like bird here on Lake Martin, it’s a Great Egret.

However that is not true everywhere. In southern Florida, the Great Blue Heron sometimes grows all-white plumage and is called a “white morph adult.” These all-white Great Blue Herons are distinguished from a Great Egret primarily by a larger, heavier shape and pale yellow-gray legs.

Great Egrets are native to Lake Martin, but this area is near the northern edge of the birds’ common breeding area.

In most of the U.S. and southern Canada, Great Egrets are summer-dwellers – literally “snow birds” – that fly to Mexico, Central America, the West Indies islands and South America for the winter. During warm winters (which are increasingly common) some Great Egrets may stay here year ‘round.

Great Egrets hunt by stalking slowly or standing statue-still on the shoreline as they wait for the opportunity to snatch an unsuspecting fish out of fresh, brackish or salt water. They will also swim while hunting or fly over and pick fish from the surface, but the vast majority of the time, they’re prowling the shorelines. As a general rule, they actively hunt with their necks extended; relax with an “S” shaped neck; and fly with their necks pressed in close to their bodies.

Their diet centers around small fish, but this bird will also snack on most of the animals that live along the shoreline, including insects like dragonflies, beetles and grasshoppers; worms; frogs; salamanders; snakes; crawfish; shrimp; or small rodents and even other birds.

These stately birds were once so hunted that they were threatened with extinction. The reason is that during its summer breeding season, adult Great Egrets grow a cape of long, white, feathery plumes or “aigrettes” that during the late 1800s and early 1900s were all the rage in ladies’ hats. Plume hunting for great egrets was banned around 1910, and the birds began to make a comeback.

The Great Egret is the symbol of the National Audubon Society, a prominent conservation organization that was originally formed in an effort to stop the killing of these birds for their feathers.

Great Egret numbers have been increasing since the hunting stopped, and now scientists estimate there are more than 180,000 breeding pairs of great egrets in North America.

Male Great Egrets use their plumes, and a patch of skin on their faces, to attract mates. They raise their aigrettes and engage in a courtship display that includes stretching their necks up to the sky, holding sticks in their bills, ducking their heads, calling, circular flight patterns and preening their wings. The patch of skin on their faces turns a bright, almost fluorescent green. All of this is very attractive to the gals, and when choices have been made and the couples settle down, great egrets remain monogamous for the breeding season.

Large nesting platforms up to 3 feet wide are built of long sticks in trees and bushes, often above water but sometimes a good distance away. They typically nest with other great egrets, and islands are favorite spots for colonies.

Great Egret nests are usually built by the male before a couple partners up, and nests are the sites of the courtship displays.

After the couple is set, the nest is finished with plant material that forms a cup-shape to contain the eggs, and some (but not all) generous gals help finish building the nest.

Females lay a clutch of 1-6 (most often 3-4) pale green-blue eggs, which will incubate for three weeks to a month. When the chicks are born – with their eyes open and white downy feathers on their backs – they will stay in the nest for another three weeks before climbing out. Great Egret chicks can fly at the age of 6-7 weeks old.

Great Egrets like to be around other birds and will sometimes feed with other herons or cormorants and sometimes feed in fields with cattle.

One banded Great Egret lived to be 22 years, 10 months old, the oldest known individual.

Information for this article came from Cornell University’s and the National Audubon Society’s