Ian’s Bird of the Week – Little Egret ~ by Ian Montgomery
Newsletter ~ 4/6/11
I’ve recently been updating the Heron and Egret galleries (Ardeidae) on the website and I noticed that the elegant Little Egret hadn’t yet featured as bird of the week. Its one of five species of egret resident in Australia and in breeding plumage it is easily distinguished by the only one to have a pair of head plumes – as in the first photo – in addition to breast and back plumes. The only other egrets globally with these head plumes are the closely related Snowy Egret of the Americas and the possibly conspecific Western Reef Egret, neither of which has been recorded in mainland Australia (there are records of the Western Reef Egret in the Cocos Islands).
In non-breeding plumage, it lacks plumes and is most easily separated from the similarly-sized Intermediate Egret by having a dark bill rather than a yellow or orange one. It’s best and worst field mark is the yellowish feet – best because this feature is shared only with Snowy and Western Reef Egrets and worst because you usually can’t see the colour of the feet in their normal habitat – wetlands – though visible in flight as in the second photo.
Little Egrets are versatile feeders and often dash frantically around in shallow water, Greenshank-like, in search of small vertebrates. They also feed by stirring up prey with their feet and will also take fish, as in the third photo. This one has just grabbed a fish and is rushing off to avoid the attention of the nearby Royal Spoonbills. Egrets and Spoonbills often try to steal each others food. For examples, have a look at http://www.birdway.com.au/threskiornithidae/royal_spoonbill/source/royal_spoonbill_c35816f.htm (spoonbill chasing spoonbill) and http://www.birdway.com.au/threskiornithidae/royal_spoonbill/source/royal_spoonbill_c35824f.htm (great egret chasing spoonbill).
In Australia, the Little Egret is commonest in northern Australia, but also occurs in smaller numbers in eastern and southeastern Australia, in Tasmania in winter and in central and western Australia when conditions are suitable. It also extends widely through Eurasia and Africa. The Australian race has yellow lores between the bill and the eye, but that of the nominate Eurasian race normally has blue-grey lores as in the fourth photo of one on a beach at the Cape of Good Hope. Globally, Little Egrets are quite variable and their taxonomy is still poorly understood.
Ian Montgomery, Birdway Pty Ltd,
454 Forestry Road, Bluewater, Qld 4818
Phone: 0411 602 737 +61-411 602 737
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the stork, the heron after its kind, and the hoopoe and the bat. (Deuteronomy 14:18 NKJV)
The Heron is one of the birds mentioned in the Bible, so is found in our Birds of the Bible – Heron page.