Friday, August 17, 2012

Great Egret

The great egret is a fairly common sight in southern Minnesota from spring through September. We see enough of them that we can take them for granted, but they are simply spectacular birds: pure white, tall, long-necked, long-billed and long-legged, with a wingspan of more than four feet. They can usually be seen at the shallow edges of ponds or in wetlands, where they move slowly or stand very still and stab lightning-fast at fish with their long bills.

Here are two shots of the same bird, seen in western Minnesota in early August, showing how different they look depending on whether they coil or extend their necks.

When they fly, their black legs trail out behind them and they hold their necks deeply coiled, or tucked.

Egrets, herons and the more secretive bitterns are all part of the family Ardeidae. The Sibley Guide notes that the great egret's combination of long yellow bill and black legs is unique among the herons and egrets. 

The snowy egret, whose range overlaps a fair amount with the great egret's but is not often seen in Minnesota, is similar but smaller, with somewhat lacier plumage, black-billed and yellow-footed (they look as if they are wearing yellow rubber gloves). We saw one or two of these in northeastern South Dakota the same weekend we saw the great egret shown here.

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