Sunday, August 11, 2013

Herons, Egrets, and Ibis, Oh My!

I didn't really start looking at birds or intentionally trying to find them until about two years ago. Yep, I am a late-blooming bird brain. Most of my "birding" has been either accidental—they happened to be sitting on the fence outside my kitchen window—or during destination vacations. For example, Jim and I specifically booked a private guide to take us to the Rocklands Bird Sanctuary in Montego Bay, Jamaica during our time in port while on a cruise specifically so that I could hold a hummingbird (I highly recommend our guide, Alrick, Your Jamaican Tour Guide, by the way.). The beautiful Swallow-tailed Hummingbird (called the Doctor Bird locally) is the national bird of Jamaica. This seemed to make birding something either unintentional or really special. So recently I decided to take time every week to bird and to bird locally when we are home in Central Texas.

Oh, my. What fun! I read about Murphy Park in nearby Taylor and had to go! I couldn't even begin to
count the egrets, herons, and ibis that were roosting. From a distance the trees looked like magnolia trees in full bloom but as you look closer with binoculars or a good zoom lens it's easy to pick out several different species.

I'm still learning to distinguish between the various species and there are various types of heron and egrets roosting here but I had never been up close to cattle egret.

The cattle egret is a type of heron that, as the name implies, usually hangs out around cattle, snacking on the insects that invariably are near cows and horses. They are also attracted to smoke and often show up at fires to feed on the insects that are trying to escape the flames. The buff plume on its head is an indication that it's breeding season. Cattle egret nest with other herons and egrets (and a few ibis) near a body of water, building a platform of sticks for its nest.

One really interesting thing I learned about cattle egret is that they are native to Africa and only reached the Americas in the late 19th century. Starting in South America, cattle egret didn't make it to the US until the 1940s. Block the borders; cattle egret are now one of the most abundant of the North American herons.

Heron and egrets belong to the same family, and just to be even more confusing, some of the 64 species are called bitterns. Birds referred to as egrets are mainly white while those called heron have grey, white, black, blue, or brown feathers, often quite mixed. Egrets also tend to be smaller than herons, but again some of the smaller herons are similar in size to an egret. Regardless of whether it's a heron or an egret, these are fascinating birds to watch! And Murphy Park is close enough to home to allow for frequent visits.

1 comment:

  1. It was really amazing to see so many egrets in one place.