Red­dish Egret

The rarest and most habi­tat-re­stricted heron in Florida

Cape Coral Living - - Cape Departments - BY WIL­LIAM R. COX Wil­liam R. Cox has been a pro­fes­sional na­ture pho­tog­ra­pher and ecol­o­gist for more than 35 years. Visit him on­line at williamr­cox­pho­tog­ra­

The red­dish egret (Egretta rufescens) is the least com­mon heron in Florida. Strictly a coastal species, this wad­ing bird is 27-32 inches long with a wing span of 3.5-4 feet. Rarely found in­land, it is as­so­ci­ated with es­tu­ar­ies, man­grove swamps, tidal flats and coastal la­goons. It is a per­ma­nent res­i­dent in the Keys and the south­ern half of Florida, and its num­bers are slowly in­creas­ing in North Florida. The red­dish egret is a col­or­ful and en­ter­tain­ing heron with two color morphs: Red is the most com­mon, but a small per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion ap­pears as a white morph. The red or dark morph is bluish gray with rusty head and neck. It has a large dark bill with pale eyes. Its legs and feet are bluish. The white morph has all white plumage. In breed­ing phases, both morphs have a maned ap­pear­ance on the neck and head, flow­ing back plumes, cobalt legs, a bright pink bill with a very black tip and pur­ple around the eyes. Ju­ve­niles of the red morph are cin­na­mon to gray with­out the bi­col­ored bill. The red-morph red­dish egret can be con­fused with the great blue heron (Ardea hero­dias), tri­col­ored heron (Egretta tri­color) and lit­tle blue heron (Egretta caerulea), although these breed­ing herons dif­fer in that they do not have pink bills with dark tips and rusty necks. The great blue heron is also much larger. The white phase of the lit­tle blue heron and snowy egret (Egretta thula) do not have the dark bluish feet and legs of the white-morph red­dish egret. The snowy egret also has yel­low feet and lores. The great egret (Ardea alba) is also a large white wad­ing bird with black legs, but it has a yel­low bill and, dur­ing breed­ing, green lores. The white morph of the great blue heron has yel­low legs rather than the bluish legs of the red­dish egret. Hit hard by plume hunt­ing in the 19th cen­tury, the red­dish egret has not re­cov­ered as fast as the other herons. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Com­mis­sion (FWC) has listed the red­dish egret, the rarest and most habi­tat-re­stricted heron in Florida, as a Species of Spe­cial Con­cern. It was al­most ex­tir­pated in Florida by 1890 and has re­cov­ered very slowly since the 1930s, with pro­tec­tions in place. This coastal species nests pri­mar­ily in red or black man­groves in small num­bers some­times as­so­ci­ated with rook­eries of other wad­ing birds. A loose stick nest is placed less than 10 feet above wa­ter or ground or usu­ally 3 feet or more be­neath the canopy. Both sexes help build the nest. The pair in­cu­bates two to five pale blue-green eggs for ap­prox­i­mately 26 days. Both sexes feed and brood the nestlings af­ter hatch­ing. The young are fed by re­gur­gi­ta­tion. The young leave the colony in 9-10 weeks. The red­dish egret does not breed un­til its third year, about a year later than most heron species. The red­dish egret feeds in shal­low coastal wa­ters, ac­tively pur­su­ing its prey of fish and aquatic in­ver­te­brates. It is much more ac­tive than other herons in chas­ing prey. Be­cause of this for­ag­ing be­hav­ior, it is bet­ter able to ex­ploit shal­low open for­ag­ing habi­tats, but can­not pur­sue ac­tive prey in heav­ily veg­e­tated fresh­wa­ter wet­lands or coastal marshes. It is crit­i­cal that the red­dish egret is able to lo­cate its nest­ing habi­tat close to its for­ag­ing habi­tat. This helps ex­plain why its pop­u­la­tion is re­stricted to the Florida coasts and lo­cated pri­mar­ily in Florida Bay and the Keys. The red­dish egret feeds pre­dom­i­nantly on fish, in­clud­ing more than 30 species in Florida Bay. Com­mon fish prey in­clude sail­fin molly, sheepshead min­now, marsh kil­li­fish and goldspot­ted kil­li­fish. While pho­tograph­ing red­dish egrets in South Florida, I have ob­served them for­ag­ing on long­nose kil­li­fish, small Gulf floun­der and large needle­fish. The Florida red­dish egret pop­u­la­tion con­tin­ues to de­cline. It is re­ported as com­mon through­out the year on Sani­bel Is­land, while the other herons are abun­dantly ob­served there through­out the year. Im­por­tant coastal for­ag­ing habi­tats have been de­stroyed by dredge-and-fill ac­tiv­i­ties. The red­dish egret is a habi­tat spe­cial­ist, and the loss of for­ag­ing and nest­ing coastal wet­lands has a neg­a­tive im­pact on its pop­u­la­tion. Coastal wa­ters are also im­pacted by some tourism ac­tiv­i­ties, even in pro­tected ar­eas. Tourists need to be aware of which ac­tiv­i­ties may dis­turb for­ag­ing and nest­ing birds. The Sani­bel-Cap­tive Audubon So­ci­ety and J. N. “Ding” Dar­ling Wildlife So­ci­ety are ac­tive in aid­ing re­search to mon­i­tor the red­dish egret’s uti­liza­tion of coastal habi­tats and to learn more about its life his­tory in South Florida. You can help this im­per­iled species by sup­port­ing these so­ci­eties.

A white-morph red­dish egret in breed­ing plumage, for­ag­ing at Bunche Beach.

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