Mystery Bird: Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens

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[Mystery bird] Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens, photographed at Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, Brazoria County, Texas. [I will identify this bird for you in 48 hours]

Image: Joseph Kennedy, 15 July 2010 [larger view].

Nikon D200, Kowa 883 telescope with TSN-PZ camera eyepiece 1/1250s f/8.0 at 1000.0mm iso400.

Please name at least one field mark that supports your identification.

This lovely species was nearly exterminated in the US by hunters who killed the birds for their plumes. The population is small and still recovering, albeit very slowly.

Review all mystery birds to date.

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What a lovely picture!

The black legs made me try to remember the who has black and who has yellow legs. So then I started looking at my book. It's Great Egrets that have black legs.

But then, the bill. The bill looks two-tone to me, and don't Great Egrets have a yellowish bill? And once I'm doubting myself, I'm wondering about the length of the neck. Is it long enough relative to the body for a Gre Egret?

So as I flipped through my Sibley's, there's a white morph of a reddish egret that has a two-tone bill (yellowish near the face, darker near the tip). There's also a hint of fluff at the front, bottom of the neck. And the location seems right for a reddish egret.

Snowy Egret. I see them in the canal behind my house sometimes, and I grew up near a bird sanctuary (Avery Island, LA). The Great Egret has a yellow/orange bill.

Well, it isn't a Snowy Egret. Snowies have yellow feet and this guy has black feet. It's difficult to determine size from the photo, but I'll guess it's a Great American egret, rather than our common Cattle egret.

By D Hopkins (not verified) on 19 Jul 2010 #permalink

I think bardiac got it. White phase of the Reddish Egret, due to two-tone bill and black legs with no yellow on the foot. The immature Little Blue Heron is white with dark legs, but they are greenish, not black.

Cattle Egret is a stockier bird with a shorter, thicker bill without dark tip, Great White Heron has yellow legs, and belongs in South Florida, not Texas.

I'm having some doubts, now, though. (As always.) GrrlScientist's comment talks about the population being small and still recovering. But the Cornell All About Birds site says that the IUCN lists the Reddish Egret's conservation status as being "Least Concern." Hmmm.


White-phase reddish egret and, yes, reddish egret was nearly extirpated from the US by plume hunters. Its range has always been limited so the impact on this species of plume hunting was greater than for great egrets or snowy egrets (not necessarily greater than the impact on certain populations of these, but the last two occur over much of north america and while severely impacted, didn't come as close to extirpation as did reddish egret).

It's worth pointing out the the original Audubon Societies were formed to protect egrets from plume hunting. Here in Oregon, for instance, Teddy Roosevelt created the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and Oregon Audubon was founded (in 1902) primarily to pay for a game warden to enforce the ban on plume hunting at Malheur Lake.

One game warden was killed in action, so to speak, somewhere in the south eastern part of the US. The protection of egrets by the federal government in partnership with Audubon Societies didn't go down well with plume hunters.

Another mark to rule out Little Blue Heron is that the primaries appear to be white to the tips. In Little Blues, it is only the juveniles that are all white -- by their second summer they have blue patches. But even as juveniles, they have dark tips to the outer primaries. This bird doesn't appear to have them.

Also, the base to the bill should be bluish in juvenile Little Blues, not pinkish as this bird shows.

One field mark of Great (White) Egret is that the gape goes back to behind the eye. I find this to be the best way to id them. This bird has the gape ending below the eye. As Intermediate Egret doesn't occur in Texas I hand it to Bardiac, well spotted.

That can't be a bird on or near the Gulf coast â it's not covered in oil.

Therefore, it must be an orange. Or possibly an extinct volcano.

Tabor, this is exactly why we do it. It's a learning curve, even for the "experts". What I learn here helps me when I'm in the field,either on my local patch or on trips.

Looks awfully like a Little Egret, Ardea garzetta, which I regularly see here in Australia.

Name the field marks?
Black legs, black beak with yellow near eyes, and a tiny black line that is under the eye which I think I can see in your photo.
Its a breeding bird but doesn't have the plumes so maybe moving in or out of breeding season.
Dunno if they visit Texas, but thats the bird I reckon it is.
My source is Simpson and Day 'Field Guide to the Birds of Australia".
However I'm just an amateur so maybe I'm miles off [literally and geographically].
But what the hell I'll commit myself to that as its identity.

By hannah's dad (not verified) on 19 Jul 2010 #permalink

OK I started feeling a little foolish about suggesting an Oz bird for the identity.
But then I found this:…
Which is pretty close to the white phase rufescens.

But then I found this:
Which says this:

"Colonization of the New World
The Little Egret has now started to colonize the New World. The first record there was on Barbados in April 1954. It began breeding on the island in 1994. Birds are seen with increasing regularity and have occurred from Suriname and Brazil in the south to Newfoundland and Quebec in the north. Birds on the east coast of North America are thought to have moved north with Snowy Egrets from the Caribbean."

The first bird book I ever owned
"Field Guide to the Birds of North America" [Pub. Golden] 1983, wasn't much help cos it shows the white phase of rufescens as having a very short black tip on its beak, much shorter than the photo above, and very fluffy neck and head feathers.

But really I suppose it has to be rufescens

Anyway I just came here from Pharyngula cos of the Seed business and thought I'd check this site out.

I'll be back [probably as a lurker].

By hannah's dad (not verified) on 19 Jul 2010 #permalink

Hannah's Dad -- while there are recent records for Little Egret in the US, this bird has several things wrong. The base of the bill should be much darker, with the yellow confined to the lores. The feet in an adult should be yellow, and any bird too young to show yellow feet should also show dark lores. Finally, Little (and Snowy) should have a more slender bill than this bird.

I suspect that your misgivings about the bill pattern mean that this bird is about 2 years old -- apparently it takes a while for the bill to achieve its final pattern.

Thanks psweet.

By hannah's dad (not verified) on 20 Jul 2010 #permalink