Cattle egrets and an exceptional heron
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.
A cattle egret prowls for earthworms on a lawn at Peters River.