March 10, 2020 – The Great Egrets are building nests at a small rookery in Resoft County Park, in Alvin Texas. This is an exciting time to see them. Their breeding plumage is pristine, and they are courting. Love is in the air!
The Great Egret’s breeding plumage consists of bright green lores (the skin around the eye), and a cape of long fine white plumes extending from between their shoulder blades down their back almost to the ground. The males and females look the same. They are 2 ½ to 3 ½ feet long, with a wingspan of 4 ½ to 6 ½ feet.
Resoft has a little lake with three small islands where the birds have chosen to establish a small rookery. And it’s odd that they’ve chosen these three islands, and seem to be ignoring the other two islands just on the far side of the new walking bridge. I’m not sure any human quite knows what makes the perfect rookery. This little phone photo gives you an idea of the density of nesting birds… the number will grow as the season progresses.
Great Egrets are large elegant birds, typically moving gracefully both when when soaring across the sky, and when fishing in shallow waters. However, on my most recent visit, though I stayed for three hours, I didn’t see a single egret even pretending to fish – they were totally focused on pairing and nest-building. This bird would grab a stick, fiddle with it, and reject it, dropping it back in the water. He finally found one that passed inspection, and carried it up into the trees. Even as he glided through the water searching for sticks, he was displaying his plumes in the breeze to great effect.
The eager male starts his nest by laying a few long sticks in a strong crotch of spreading branches above the water’s edge. Then, he takes a ritual position at the nest, first slowly stretching his bill to the sky to show how big he is, then bowing low, and then doing slow deep knee bends, as if to gesture, “Here, right here, is a great place for a nest”.
The sticks are hunted and selected by the males from within the trees, from the ground beneath the trees, from the far banks of the lake where the lawn mowers have hacked long branches into 2-foot sticks, from the fence rows where scraggly trees and vines collect, and from the water.
I watched the bird above for at least 10 minutes as he struggled to steer his stick between the entangling branches. He was finally successful, and flew upwards, carrying it to a nest on the other side of the island, where it was accepted.
It’s amazing to watch these large birds maneuver their long legs and wide wings between the crowded branches of the trees. Sometimes they will pause on one branch before floating upwards through a gap in the branches, or fold one wing while extending the other, or in this case, scrunch and flare their wings to make themselves as narrow as possible.
Once the pair is formed, she stays by the nest, re-arranging and more tightly weaving the sticks. He comes back carrying a stick, which he hands off to her, then he watches as she incorporates the new stick. They may cuddle and groom a bit, and then he flies off to find another stick.
Here we see the male flying toward the nest with his stick, his legs extended for a landing, where the female greets him gabbling loudly.
This pair of birds is completing the hand-off. Zoom in to see that each has hold of one end of the stick. I tried very hard to bring back a photo of the “classic” stick transfer, but only have some near-misses from the far side of the island, taken between the forest of twigs. I will keep working on it, because it’s really lovely: they stand facing each other chest-to-chest, with necks bent back and bills lowered, creating a perfect valentine shape.
The trees are beginning to leaf out, and as the nests are completed and the eggs are laid, the view will change. The forest of sticks will be replaced by thicker greenery. And the rookery will get more interesting. Spoonbills and White Ibis are there now, just starting to think about pairing up, and Snowy Egrets, Cattle Egrets and Little Blue Herons nested there last year, and will likely return.
For now, love, and Egrets, are in the air!
P.S. ~ All About Birds, from the Cornell Labs, has a great article on identifying the various white herons and egrets visible along the southern coasts here in North America.
P.P.S. ~ Did you notice that my photos in this post download more easily to your screen? Some helpful readers pointed out that my huge photos were sucking up bandwidth and pointed me toward a way to optimize them without losing much fidelity. Let me know what you think.