How to tell Gulf Coast’s myr­iad white birds apart

USA TODAY International Edition - - LIFE - Amy Ben­nett Wil­liams

It sounds like the setup for a joke miss­ing a punch­line: What’s big and white and seen all over?

One of the first things many South­west Florida new­com­ers may no­tice is the abun­dance of large, pale, two­legged crea­tures. No, not their fel­low new­com­ers; we’re talk­ing about the myr­iad species of white birds that also call the re­gion home.

Egrets and ibis, herons and pel­i­cans — they all come in white va­ri­eties, and that can be con­fus­ing, since some of them look very sim­i­lar at first glance.

Un­like some other species for which there are mem­ory aids to help tell them apart (think “Red on yel­low, kill a fel­low; red on black, venom lack” for the coral snake ver­sus kingsnake IDs) re­tired Florida Gulf Coast Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor Jerry Jack­son, the re­gion’s pre-em­i­nent or­nithol­o­gist, can’t think of any handy rhymes for telling white birds apart.

“I’ve never heard of any,” he says, “But it’d be a good idea, be­cause there are so many.”

Kathy Miller, who’s been try­ing to figure out just which bird’s been hang­ing around her North Fort My­ers pond, could sure use one. “My mnemonic is ‘What the heck is that?’ she jokes.

Maybe the re­gion’s pioneers were onto some­thing, with their one-name-fitsall moniker for white wad­ing birds.

“In my youth 70 or more years ago, most wadin’ birds were called ‘pond scog­gins,’ usu­ally with a very brief de­scrip­tion,” ac­cord­ing to Florida na­tive Billy Mur­phy of La­Belle. “For in­stance,” he says in di­alect, “They wuz a bunch a them great big ol’ white pond scog­gins in that lit­tle ol’ pond down by our house yes­ter­day.”

To help tell all those scog­ginses apart, here’s a quick guide to South­west Florida’s white birds.

White ibis (Eu­docimus al­bus)

Length: 22 inches.

Wingspan: 38 inches.

Look for: Pink curved bill, long neck, pink curved bill and red legs. Ju­ve­niles are mot­tled brown.

De­tails: Highly so­cia­ble, ibis feed and roost in flocks and fly in V for­ma­tion, necks ex­tended. Other waders, in­clud­ing egrets and herons, of­ten fol­low in their path for a free meal. Both par­ents feed their young by re­gur­gi­ta­tion; al­though adults pre­fer salt­wa­ter crus­taceans, they dine ex­clu­sively in fresh wa­ter when chicks ar­rive be­cause salt­wa­ter ed­i­bles are toxic to their young.

Great egret (Ardea alba)

Length: 35 to 41 inches. Wingspan: up to 50 inches.

Look for: Pointed yel­low bill, long neck, black legs and feet. Some­times con­fused with ju­ve­nile great blue herons, which are larger and have green legs.

De­tails: Once known both as the great white heron and Amer­i­can egret, Jack­son says. Usu­ally feeds alone in fresh or salt marshes.

Snowy egret (Egretta thula)

Length: 24 inches.

Wingspan: 38 inches.

Look for: Black bill, black legs and yel­low feet, which has earned them the nick­name “golden slip­pers.” Distin­guished from great egret by smaller size and dis­tinc­tive white plume.

De­tails: In the early 19th cen­tury, the snowy egret was hunted to near ex­tinc­tion for its dis­tinc­tive plumes, which were pop­u­lar in women’s hats.

Wood stork (Myc­te­ria Amer­i­cana)

Length: 35 to 45 inches. Wingspan: 66 inches.

Look for: Thick gray bill with down­ward curve at the tip, gray, naked head and neck, gray legs and feet, black flight feath­ers and tail.

De­tails: A very slow, stalk­ing feeder, the wood stork re­ally ex­cels in the air, where it can of­ten be seen soar­ing in cir­cles at very high al­ti­tude. Their enor­mous nest­ing colonies have been known to num­ber up to 10,000 pairs; one prom­i­nent lo­cal rook­ery can be seen at Corkscrew Swamp Sanc­tu­ary in Naples.

Cat­tle egret (Bubul­cus ibis)

Length: 17 inches.

Wingspan: 37 inches.

Look for: Pointed or­angey yel­low bill, yel­low legs and feet (though ju­ve­niles have dark legs and bills).

De­tails: Much smaller than other Florida egrets, this adapt­able lit­tle bird can be found placidly rid­ing cows, pick­ing off in­sects as they land. That’s a car­ry­over from their ori­gins in Africa, says Jack­son, where they hang out around large graz­ing mam­mals like wa­ter buffalo and things like that. “The large mam­mals were es­sen­tially beat­ers,” Jack­son says, “walk­ing through the grass to munch on the grass, and when they walked, they would stir up in­sects and the in­sects would jump and the cat­tle egrets would get them.” In these parts, they also fol­low lawn mow­ers, snatch­ing stirred-up bugs and hang out at fast­food restau­rants look­ing for a free meal.

Fort My­ers News-Press USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

Lit­tle blue heron (Egretta caerulea)

Length: 24 inches.

Wingspan: 40 inches.

Look for: Two-toned gray bill, pale green­ish yel­low legs and feet.

De­tails: Doesn’t their name say they’re blue? Well, yes, but as ju­ve­niles, they are in­deed white, mak­ing them tricky to ID, says vet­eran birder and pho­tog­ra­pher Ge­off Coe, who adds this tid­bit: “Do you know why they’re white in their first year? Re­cent stud­ies sug­gest that the white plumage makes them more eas­ily ac­cepted by snowy egrets, who are quite feisty when pro­tect­ing their fa­vored fishing spots. Be­cause snowies are such ag­gres­sive feeders, and more efficient than lit­tle blues at find­ing prey, be­ing able to tag along the young­sters sur­vive their first year.”

Sources: Jerry Jack­son, The NewsPress ar­chives, Cor­nell Li­brary of Or­nithol­ogy, Birds of North Amer­ica On­line

LUKE FRANKE/USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

A great egret

AN­DREW WEST/USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

A snowy egret

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