Cat­tle egrets and an ex­cep­tional heron

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - WEEKEND LIFE - Bruce Mactav­ish Bruce Mactav­ish is an en­vi­ron­men­tal con­sul­tant and avid bird­watcher. He can be reached at wingin­gi­tone@yahoo.ca

It started when Jamie Bran­don posted a pic­ture of cat­tle egret in a field with cows at Great Barasway, Pla­cen­tia Bay. An hour later Cliff Do­ran re­ported that he heard about a cat­tle egret in a gar­den at St. Shotts. One cat­tle egret is in­ter­est­ing but two ap­pear­ing on the same day prob­a­bly means some­thing more sig­nif­i­cant. The ball did not stop rolling there. Over the next 24 hours there was an avalanche of re­ports. John Rowe pho­tographed one on the ball field in Pla­cen­tia. Linda Mur­phy pho­tographed a cat­tle egret on the Long Har­bour com­mu­nity sports field. Sev­eral peo­ple in­clud­ing Rose­mary Critch saw two cat­tle egrets to­gether in St. Mary’s. Doreen White and oth­ers noted one fre­quent­ing the St. Stephens/peters River area. De­nis Minty pho­tographed one in Clarke’s Beach. Anne Hughes found one on Dool­ings Lane in the Goulds.

When the dust cleared a whop­ping nine cat­tle egrets had been dis­cov­ered mak­ing it the largest in­flux of cat­tle egrets in New­found­land in liv­ing mem­ory. The weather the day be­fore had been ex­cep­tion­ally warm at 19C ac­com­pa­nied by very strong far reach­ing southerly winds. Cat­tle egrets must have been in the midst of a mi­gra­tion pe­riod some­where in the eastern United States when the storm hit and car­ried a few off course.

The cat­tle egret is a wide­spread bird in the United States and far­ther south. Un­like other egrets and herons that eat pri­mar­ily fish, cat­tle egrets are field birds. They eat in­sects and earth worms. In warmer cli­mates they fol­low live­stock graz­ing in fields look­ing for the in­sects they dis­turb. Dur­ing their Avalon Penin­sula visit they were feed­ing well on earth worms abun­dant on the sur­face of the soil af­ter the rainy weather of late.

Some of the egrets were re­ported as great egrets be­cause of the yel­low bill and dark leg colour. Most books show the cat­tle egret in sum­mer plumage with a yel­low bill and yel­low legs. How­ever, in the fall and win­ter the legs turn black. Bird books of­ten fail to il­lus­trate this point. The great egret has a yel­low bill and dark legs dur­ing all sea­sons but are also much big­ger and do not feed in the fields. Cat­tle egrets quickly be­come ac­cus­tomed to hu­man pres­ence and will feed on lawns while all but ig­nor­ing peo­ple.

The cat­tle egrets were an en­joy­able sight for the late fall sea­son but were just the gravy be­fore the main course of ex­tra rare heron was pre­sented. Shawn Fitz­patrick and Karen Mercer were al­ready hav­ing a good day bird watch­ing around the Ir­ish Loop. They saw the two cat­tle egrets in St. Mary’s. A rare lark spar­row at Cliff Do­ran’s Cape Race bird feeder pre­formed nicely for them. They crammed in a lot of bird­ing ter­ri­tory into a short Novem­ber day. It was get­ting dark as they got around to Re­news and Karen spot­ted a bird with a long neck stand­ing on a rock in the in­ner har­bour. It was a heron. It looked like a great blue heron. An un­ex­pected late fall sight­ing for the Avalon Penin­sula. Be­ing keen pho­tog­ra­phers both Shawn and Karen be­gan tak­ing pic­tures in the fail­ing light be­fore head­ing on home.

Af­ter hear­ing about the great blue heron dis­cov­ery at Re­news, the vet­eran bird­ers were hop­ing to see the pic­tures. This is some­thing we do out of habit just to be sure it was the rel­a­tively or­di­nary great blue heron and not the ex­tremely rare grey heron from Eu­rope. The grey heron is ba­si­cally the Eu­ro­pean ver­sion of the great blue heron. They look like twins. Only their mothers or knowl­edge­able bird­ers can tell them apart. We were not re­ally ex­pect­ing to see the white in­stead of rusty feath­er­ing on the lead­ing edge of the wing and the tack-sharp black marks on the front of the neck. Th­ese were very sug­ges­tive signs of grey heron. The colour­ing of the feath­er­ing on the up­per leg is the one mark that must be seen to con­firm a grey heron in North Amer­ica. It was stand­ing deep in the wa­ter cov­er­ing most the de­tails of the thighs, but what lit­tle could be seen in­deed looked white and not ru­fous coloured. It was go­ing to take more study.

That hap­pened at first light the next day. The silky white thighs of a grey heron were con­firmed be­yond doubt. It was the fifth record of a grey heron in New­found­land and for all of Canada. Over the week­end many bird­ers had their views of this ma­jor celebrity. Some bird­ers from United States even flew in to see this North Amer­i­can rar­ity as it re­mained into this past week. When this heron flew across from the oth­ers side of the North At­lantic we do not know. Nor do we know how long it will stay. Its story is un­fold­ing.

BRUCE MACTAV­ISH PHOTO

A cat­tle egret prowls for earth­worms on a lawn at Peters River.

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