Great Egrets Begin Nest Building

March 5, 2021 ~ Friday was cloudy with occasional light drizzles, perfect for photographing white birds. And boy, did I see some white birds!

I was visiting the Smith Oaks Sanctuary, about a 2-hour drive from home. The sanctuary is a 177-acre reserved patch of woods and marshland surrounding some large ponds. Low islands were built years ago as a water bird habitat, and bird-watching decks have been constructed along the edges of the ponds (shown by the red X’s) giving a great view of the birds nesting on the islands.

Smith Oaks Sanctuary, in High Island, TX

Cormorants were the earliest to establish nests in the rookery; I wrote about them last November. Next are the Great Egrets. These are the largest of the white egrets in North America (except for an isolated population of Great White Herons in Florida). In the next several weeks, the Spoonbills and Snowy Egrets will add their nests. But on this day, Great Egrets were my focus.

1/1600 sec. f/7.1 ISO 2000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
(Click on any photo once to enlarge in a new window, and a second time to zoom in; dismiss that window to return here.)

Males choose a location for a nest, and then posture and display from their chosen spot, hoping to attract a female. The male raises his plumes in a fan, then does slow “knee bends”, raising his head high, then bowing low, showing off his physique. (“Knee bends” is in quotes, because that backward-pointing joint in the middle of the bird’s visible leg is actually his ankle; his knee is further up on his leg, hidden by his feathers.)

Great Egret pair cuddling for a moment
1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Once they pair up, they often cuddle together when resting. The bright green lores (skin around the eye) and the long plumes are their breeding plumage. After mating and laying eggs, the lores will fade, and the plumes will be worn away by the hard work of foraging and feeding their brood. In this photo, you can see the fine mist that fell, and the gentle breeze bringing that moisture from the ocean, just a mile southeast of the Sanctuary. That breeze also accounts for nearly all the birds flying towards the right edge of my photos… they fly into any wind or breeze, which makes hovering above their nest before dropping through the branches and into the nest, easier.

Photographer Bill Moraldo cautioned us to tune our settings for the fact that these were white birds, and were easy to over-expose, even on a heavily overcast day. He was right. Many of my shots have over exposed upper surfaces, and I wasted the opportunity to use the available light to raise my shutter speed to stop motion, and/or to raise my f-stop to increase depth of field for the length (roughly 3 feet) and wingspan (over 4 feet) of these impressive birds.

Great Egret carrying hefty stick to his nest
1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 800
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

After pairing, the males begin the hunt for sticks. They harvest dried limbs from trees, dried reeds, and water-logged branches from the pond. Then they fly their stick to the female waiting at the nest location. At this early point in nest development, I didn’t see any sticks with foliage attached; the main goal is to lay down the structural foundation for a strong nest.

Preparing to drop down between the tree branches with his church-key stick
1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
Great Egret with curly stick
1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
This monster stick fetched up from the water’s edge is over five feet long
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 800
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
Great Egret female eagerly greets male bringing prize stick
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

The male flies each one home, and is welcomed by his honking and calling mate. Nests are close together, sometimes almost touching, but the pair doesn’t get confused. He knows where to take the stick, and she knows when her partner is approaching.

A valentine-shaped stick handoff
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 800
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

When a male arrives with his stick, we all wait, holding our breath, cameras clicking, to see if we will get to observe the handing off of the stick, and this pair did not disappoint. They are so handsome, you almost don’t notice that the silly photographer didn’t get their feet in the frame.

Great Egret pair cooperating on building their nest
1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 640
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Sometimes, the female accepts the stick and quickly bends to weave the stick into the growing nest while he observes from the sidelines. Other times, the pair each holds the stick and they work together to position it just so. The pair above worked together for at least 5 minutes, carefully nudging and swiveling the stick into position.

Symmetrical view of nest-building Great Egret pair
1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Most of the nests are built directly into the low scrub and short trees that cover the island, but there are a few man-made platforms, and multiple pairs are building nests on this one. Photographer Linda Murdock commented that, while the platform is not attractive, it provides a clear view of the young birds in their nests without obscuring foliage. That will be something to look forward to in the coming months.

Great Egret dancing in the rain
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

These birds are so elegant in their breeding plumage, and so full of energy at the beginning of the breeding season, that it is tempting to ascribe human emotions to them. Doesn’t he look as if he is dancing with joy as he leaps into the soft rain?

Male Great Egret departs to resume the hunt for sticks
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Photography at the rookery was hard work. There was non-stop activity throughout my 4-hour visit. The birds were constantly flying behind branches, meaning that I needed to keep moving for unobscured shots. The light and clouds were constantly changing, requiring setting adjustments… and this is something I clearly need to practice.

I was exhausted after my thorough workout. And, with over 3600 shots on my memory cards, I was grinning all the way home.

7 thoughts on “Great Egrets Begin Nest Building”

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