Photo © Rob Curtis / The Early Birder
Texas’ coastal reddish egret puts on a show to catch its food.
by Elizabeth Bates
If you’ve visited the Texas coast, you may have noticed a charming, long-legged bird that appears to be dancing in the shallow coastal waters. This dancer, the reddish egret, can easily be characterized as one of the most charismatic heron species.
Reddish egrets rely entirely on coastal wetland habitats, where they nest on barrier and dredge-spoil islands and mangroves. They’re known for their unique feeding behaviors.
While most heron species stand still or walk slowly when foraging in shallow coastal flats and lagoons, reddish egrets burst into a crazy run, darting left and right, often while extending and retracting their wings. They stop suddenly, lift their wings over their head to create a canopy, and strike the water to catch a small fish with their sharp, spear-like bill. That winged canopy is thought to reduce glare on the water, allowing the bird to better see its prey.
Reddish egrets are considered a medium-sized egret, growing 27 to 32 inches tall. Their name can be misleading since this species actually has two distinct color morphs: dark and white. The term “reddish” comes from the dark morph, with a rust-colored head and neck and blue-gray body. The white morph displays all white plumage. Both color morphs have bluish legs and a bi-colored bill that is black at the tip and pink at the base.
The reddish egret is the rarest of the heron and egret species in North America, with only an estimated 3,500 to 4,250 breeding pairs. Plume hunters decimated their populations (along with those of other wading bird species) in the 1900s to decorate ladies’ hats. Although reddish egret numbers increased after passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, they never reached pre-hunting levels. Texas boasts the largest breeding population in the United States along our Gulf Coast.
Keep an eye out for the dancing reddish egret the next time you’re at the coast. If you spot one, take a moment to enjoy the show.