Category Archives: Herons

Egrets and their kin wander widely in late summer

Late summer has a sort of lazy feel of anticipation to it. Most birds are finishing up their nesting season. Hungry fledglings appear at feeders in the company of adults. In recent weeks, I’ve noticed an explosion in the number of hummingbirds visiting my feeders and garden flowers. I’ve also noticed the vanguard of migrant birds that are starting to make appearances as fall migration approaches. It’s not just songbirds, however, that are on the move. Some large and rather conspicuous birds have been attracting attention in recent weeks, including a variety of wading birds.

 

 

 

Sightings this summer of long-legged wading birds in Tennessee and Virginia that are far outside of their usual range have included cattle egret, white ibis and roseate spoonbill. In addition, Susan Hubley reported on Facebook about a tricolored heron at John Sevier Lake in Rogersville, Tennessee, on July 25.

This heron is not usually found this far inland from the coast. Another tricolored heron showed up at Paddle Creek Pond in Bristol, Tennessee, on July 30. Adrianna Nelson reported the sighting on Bristol-Birds, an email network for sharing unusual bird sightings in the region. She also shared some photographs of the bird.

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Photo courtesy of Adrianna Nelson • This tricolored heron spent a few days at Paddle Creek Pond in late July and early August. This large farm pond is managed by Crumley Farms Inc. and the Bristol Bird Club to provide habitat for migrating shorebirds and other birds.

“This is the first time I have seen a tricolored heron in Tennessee,” she wrote in a response to an email I sent her. “It is a long way off from its usual range. I have seen them before on Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina.”

She described the refuge as an excellent place to see waders, painted buntings, and many other birds. “I get the chance to go almost every year, since it is so close to where we vacation in Hilton Head,” Adrianna wrote.

She also commented on her unexpected observation.

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Photo courtesy of Adrianna Nelson • This tricolored heron spent a few days at Paddle Creek Pond in late July and early August.

“It is exciting to see something where it doesn’t usually belong,” Adrianna wrote. “I was definitely surprised to see the heron. That’s part of the fun of birding — you never know what to expect!”

She was also excited to share the sighting on Bristol-Birds. “It’s fun to share sightings with the birding community so they can also enjoy rare or unusual birds in our region,” she wrote.

Adrianna noted that she has been birding since age nine. “It all started when I saw a little gray bird hopping around in our yard,” she recalled. “I noticed it was only at our house around the winter months, and I stared to wonder what the bird was.”

After some searching online, she successfully identified the bird as a dark-eyed junco.

“During my search, I was surprised by the wide variety of birds, and I wanted to find as many as possible,” Adrianna wrote. “Since then, I was hooked!

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • This sign marks the importance of Paddle Creek Pond to migrating shorebirds and wading birds.

While diverting storms can’t be ruled out for causing some of these birds to detour into the region, it’s also normal behavior for young wading birds to disperse far and wide after leaving the nest. North American waders, or wading birds, include such long-legged species as herons, egrets, bitterns, ibises, storks and spoonbills. Most species are associated with wetlands or coastal areas.

Late summer birding is usually a period of doldrums as heat and humidity can discourage birders as well as diminish bird activity. However, it’s also the time of year when birders can make some unexpected surprises as wandering waders explore uncharted territory. Some other recent emails have reminded me of that fact.

James Elliott sent me an email describing a bird that is most likely a great egret. “For the second time in 30 years, I saw a magnificent, all-white heron yesterday on the South Houston River,” James wrote.

“I live at the very terminus of Riverside, Bullock Hollow, and Paddle Creek roads,” he wrote. “Big Springs Road is opposite across the river.”

When the bird departed, he said it flew east. He described the bird as “totally white” and “beautiful in flight.” He expressed regret that he was unable to get photographs.

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Photo courtesy of Susan Schreiner • This visiting great egret spent some time along the South Holston River in late July. Egrets, herons and other wading birds often wander into some unexpected locations in late summer.

Susan Schreiner, however, did get photographs of a great egret she observed near her home along the South Holston River in Bristol.

“We had a nice visitor today along the South Holston River,” Susan wrote in the email she sent. “When we first spotted it, it was in our tree and then flew down to the water.”

She said the egret has associated with some great blue herons in the vicinity. “It’s quite distinctive,” she wrote of the stately wading bird.

The diversity of the region’s bird life has impressed her. “Coming from Illinois, this is all pretty amazing for me,” she wrote.

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Photo courtesy of Susan Schreiner •Egrets and herons, such as this great egret, wander into some unexpected locations in late summer.

The egret is not the only exceptional bird that Susan has observed. “I occasionally see a bald eagle fly down the river that is just breathtaking,” she wrote in her email.

Through email, James and I discussed whether the bird he saw was a great white heron or a great egret. Since he saw the bird and I did not, I am inclined to go with his identification of great white heron. Although rare outside of Florida, this type of heron — simply a great blue heron in an alternative plumage — has over the years been spotted a handful of times in and around Bristol. Whether an egret or heron, his sighting is more evidence of the tendency of wading birds to wander widely in late summer.

The great egret became a motivational symbol for conservation with the foundation of the National Audubon Society in 1905. Today, the organization has nearly 500 local chapters, each of which is an independent non-profit organization voluntarily affiliated with the National Audubon Society. These chapters often organize birdwatching field trips and conservation-related activities. The National Audubon Society spearheaded efforts to end the mass slaughter of various bird species. Some birds were killed for food, but millions were also killed for their showy feathers that were destined to decorate stylish attire worn as a symbol of high fashion. As early as 1910, some states began passing legislation to abolish trade in bird plumes. The federal government also came to the assistance of birds with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was a law first enacted in 1916 to implement measures to protect and conserve migratory birds.220px-National_Audubon_Society_logo

In 1953, a great egret in flight was chosen as the symbol for the official logo of the National Audubon Society, which was formed in part to prevent the killing of birds for their feathers. Birds like great egrets, snowy egrets, roseate spoonbills and other long-legged waders had been decimated before people responded to the wanton destruction being visited upon these beautiful and awe-inspiring creatures.

The great egret belongs to the genus Ardea, which includes various egrets and herons. Other members of this genus include Goliath heron, black-headed heron, purple heron and pied heron.

The tricolored heron belongs to the genus Egretta, which consists of various herons and egrets that mostly breed in warmer climates. In North America, other members of this genus include snowy egret, reddish egret and little blue heron. Older birding field guides may refer to the tricolored heron as the Louisiana heron, which was an older popular name for the species.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A great blue heron and a great egret patrol a tidal creek in South Carolina.

Although many herons and egrets are tall and stately, there are some pint-sized members of this group of birds. In North America, the smallest is the least bittern. The largest of the world’s herons if the aptly named Goliath heron, which is also known as the giant heron. This wading bird can stand five feet tall and weigh 11 pounds. The Goliath heron is native to sub-Saharan Africa but also ranges into southwest and south Asia. The world’s largest heron feeds almost exclusively on fish.

Other descriptive names for some of the world’s herons include boat-billed heron, white-crested tiger heron, zigzag heron, rufous-bellied heron, whistling heron and white-necked heron.

To try your own luck at observing herons and egrets, scout bodies of water such as ponds, rivers, lakes and streams to increase the odds of getting your own binoculars on one of these elegant waders.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A snowy egret and a great egret forage for prey on a South Carolina tidal creek.

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Green herons will depart from region in coming weeks as cooler conditions return

With the arrival of September, migration’s pace will quicken. In late August, I started seeing warblers passing through my yard. In other locations in the region, birders have shared reports of shorebirds and wading birds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Green herons are short, stocky herons that can assume some comical poses.

Jonesborough resident Julia Ellis wrote about her own observation of a green heron that took place recently. She had seen a photo of a green heron with one of my recent columns, which helped her identify the bird.

She explained in her email that she saw the heron at along a creek on her Cherokee Road farm. “I was at a loss as to what it was,” Julia wrote. “It showed up several times a few weeks ago very close to dusk. The picture in the newspaper cleared up the mystery for me.”

Although not unusual at this time of year, green herons have been lurking along the linear trail’s waterways in Erwin. The scientific name — Butorides virescens – of this bird comes from a mix of Middle English and Ancient Greek and roughly translates as “greenish bittern.”

The green in the bird’s plumage appears as a dark green cap, as well as a greenish back and wings. Adult birds also have chestnut-colored neck feathers and a line of white feathers along the throat and belly. These herons often assume a hunched position, which can make them look smaller than they actually are.

Keep alert when walking along the trails in Erwin and you may catch sight of one of these interesting herons, too. Farm ponds in the countryside around Jonesborough, as well as wetland habitat around Persimmon Ridge Park, are also good places to look for this small heron. Most green herons will depart in late September and early October. This small heron retreats from the United States during the winter season but will return next spring in April and May.

A few herons — great blue heron and black-crowned night heron — remain in the region throughout the year, even enduring the cold winter months in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina.

Great white heron pays unexpected area visit to Steele Creek Park

I wrote a few weeks ago about the tendency of long-legged wading birds to wander far afield from their usual coastal haunts in late summer. In the ensuing weeks, numerous sightings of some unexpected waders have been reported throughout the region and beyond. 
Jeremy Stout, the manager of the Nature Center at Steele Creek Park in Bristol, reported that a great white heron generated some birding excitement among park visitors. Stout noted that the heron was first reported by Sherry Willinger on Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 7-8, and then found again by Ruth and Mary Clark on Friday, Aug. 11. Stout also managed to get a photograph of the heron, which has been seen just outside the park grounds between Ralph Harr Bridge and Highway 126. Steele Creek Park Naturalist Don Holt saw the heron again on Aug. 15. He invited others who see the heron to share their sightings by calling the park’s Nature Center at (423) 989-5616. Reports will help the park staff document the duration of the rare visitor’s stay and keep interested birders informed of its presence. 
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Photo by Jeremy Stout
This great white heron was photographed near Steele Creek Park in Bristol. Currently considered the same species as the great blue heron, there is debate among experts about granting the great white heron status as a species in its own right. 

In early August, Cheryl Livingston reported a great white heron and a great egret at Watauga Lake in Hampton. While only a handful of records exist for the great white heron in this region, these observations will not help boost the lists of any area birders. The great white heron and the great blue heron, scientifically speaking, are the same species — at least for the moment.
According to the website for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this large wading bird, originally thought to be just a white color morph of the great blue heron, might actually deserve consideration as its own species. The website’s profile of the great white heron notes that recent research about the great white suggests that it is at least a subspecies of the great blue heron. Some preliminary unpublished data suggests that the bird may even be a completely separate species. That would be exciting news for many birders, who would be able to quickly add an unexpected bird to their life lists. 
The majestic great white heron usually ranges throughout south Florida and the Florida Keys, but individuals wander far from those parts of the Sunshine State after the nesting season. 
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Painting by John James Audubon of the iconic Great White Heron of Florida.

The great white heron — as its name suggests — differs dramatically in appearance from a great blue heron, mostly in having all-white plumage. In addition, the great white heron has a yellow bill, which is heavier and more solid than the slender bill of the smaller great egret, for which it could be confused at a casual glance. The great blue heron, known by the scientific named of Ardea herodias, can stand 54 inches tall and weigh close to eight pounds. 
Waders other than great white herons have been wandering this summer. Farther afield, Michael Sledjeski has been reporting little blue herons and great egrets at Rankin Bottoms, which is a birding hot spot at Douglas Lake in East Tennessee. The location is well known among birders as a magnet for shorebirds and wading birds. Sightings of wood storks have been somewhat widespread in Tennessee and Virginia this summer. 
In addition, other waders are showing up far from their usual ranges. For instance, a roseate spoonbill — a large, pink wading bird — has shown up as far north as Pennsylvania, marking the first time the species has been sighted in the Keystone State since 1968.  
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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Identifying white herons and egrets can be a tricky business. This immature Little Blue Heron is just starting to get the          blue feathers of adulthood. 

I’ve not seen anything as exciting as a wood stork or roseate spoonbill at home, but on several occasions in the past couple of weeks my fish pond has been visited by great blue herons. A couple of these visitors were young birds, which are probably wandering widely during their first summer out of the nest. I’ve also seen green herons at the pond and in the creeks along the linear trail in Erwin. 
If the great white heron eventually gains recognition as a separate species, I will already have the bird on my Tennessee bird list thanks to a sighting of one several years ago at Musick’s Campground on Holston Lake in Bristol. Ironically, I’ll not have this bird on my Florida list, as I’ve not seen it in its southern stronghold. 
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Look for herons along edges of local ponds, rivers

I enjoyed a recent trip to Atlanta, Ga. The extended weekend visited gave me the opportunity to see some birds I don’t see often at home in Northeast Tennessee, including Brown-headed Nuthatch and Pine Warbler.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Great Egret resting on a spit of land in a lake at Murphy Candler Park in Brookhaven, Ga.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Great Egret resting on a spit of land in a lake at Murphy Candler Park in Brookhaven, Ga.

I observed a Great Egret at Murphey Candler Park in Brookhaven, Georgia. Hiking trails around a small lake at this park offer some convenient locations for scanning the lake for wading birds and waterfowl. The egret was the first Great Egret I’ve observed in the Atlanta area.

I had visited this park hoping to find dragonflies, but for the most part struck out on finding these winged insects. I was compensated not only with the egret, but with observations of Double-crested Cormorants, Canada Geese, Mallards, Belted Kingfishers, Cedar Waxwings and Song Sparrows.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Great Blue Heron moves stealthily through a wetland.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Great Blue Heron moves stealthily through a wetland.

Egrets are members of a family of birds known as Ardeidae, which includes herons, bitterns and egrets. The Great Egret is a very stately, graceful bird with white plumage, long legs and a sharp, yellow bill. It is smaller than the Great Blue Heron. The Great Egret stands 3.3 feet tall and has a wingspan of 52 to 67 inches. On average, however, they weigh only about 2.2 pounds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A large flock of Great Egrets flies over the Watauga River in Elizabethton.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A large flock of Great Egrets flies over the Watauga River in Elizabethton.

These egrets nest in large colonies. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the colonial nesting habits of these birds made them particularly vulnerable to humans who slaughtered the birds in the millions to harvest their feathers for use in the fashion industry. The Great Egret and other wading birds were almost decimated in order to decorate fashionable hats for women.

The National Audubon Society was founded in 1905, largely as an effort to combat the unregulated slaughter of birds like Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and Roseate Spoonbills. Now, more than a century later, the Great Egret still serves as the official logo for the National Audubon Society. In addition, the Great Egret has rebounded from those dark years. In fact, this bird now ranges as far north as southern Canada in appropriate wetland habitats. During spring and fall migration, Great Egrets also pass through northeast Tennessee. Look for them along rivers, lakes and on small farm ponds.

During visits to favorite birding locations in Elizabethton and Erwin, I have also observed Green Herons and Great Blue Herons.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A young Green Heron rests at the edge of a pond.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A young Green Heron rests at the edge of a pond.

The Green Heron can easily be overlooked as it lurks near a stream’s banks or the edges of a pond. This heron is not tall and stately like the Great Egret or Great Blue Heron. The bird is a patient ambush predator capable of remaining motionless for extended periods as it waits for prey to move within reach of its sharp, pointed bill. I’m always flushing these herons from cover before I even realize they are present.

I do get fortunate on occasion, however, and manage to approach a Green Heron without panicking the bird into a hasty flight. If you stand very still and don’t make sudden movements, you can manage to observe this bird from a respectful distance.

Such was the case of a Green Heron that I found stalking the edges of the pond at Erwin Fishery Park. I had my camera, so I snapped some photographs as I watched the heron’s slow, deliberate steps along the pond’s edge. Then, with a lightning-quick motion, the bird lunged its bill into the water and snatched a large tadpole. The heron required a brief time to get the wiggling tadpole positioned. After that technicality was resolved, the heron swallowed the plump tadpole quickly and almost immediately resumed search for more prey.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Green Heron finesses a captured tadpole in its bill.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Green Heron finesses a captured tadpole in its bill.

The unfortunate tadpole had developed hind legs, which did not prove an obstacle for the bird swallowing it, but still had a tail. Although it was very close to achieving frog-hood, this particular tadpole instead became part of the varied diet of a Green Heron, which can also include fish, crustaceans, insects and even mice. At this same Erwin pond, I once watched another Green Heron patiently stalking and successfully snatching dragonflies that perched on pond vegetation within reach of the bird’s bill.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Green Heron elevates a shaggy crest of feathers, a behavior often initiated when the bird feels alarmed.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Green Heron elevates a shaggy crest of feathers, a behavior often initiated when the bird feels alarmed.

The Green Heron is usually present in Northeast Tennessee from April to October. The bird migrates to Central America for the winter months. A few other herons, including the Great Blue Heron and the Black-crowned Night-Heron, live year-round in the region.