As a teenager in the Boy Scouts, I had several opportunities to attend summer camp at Central Florida’s McGregor Smith Scout Reservation, one of Florida’s hidden gems (since acquired and operated by the SW Florida Water Management District). It was during a wilderness survival camping trip along the Withlacoochee River that I first learned how to distinguish the three white Florida egrets, and I can trace my passion for ornithology to that one afternoon in a rowboat on the river, as we set trotlines for catfish and just enjoyed the afternoon.
The stretch of the Withlacoochee bordering the reservation is beautiful, and was absolutely pristine in the seventies. The river was full of fish and turtles, and there were more birds than you could count. I mentioned this to our counselor, who promptly pointed out several species that I had never heard of, including Limpkin and Anhinga. I responded by indicating a cluster of large white birds near the shore. “Egrets!” I proudly announced.
“Yes, but can you tell me what kind of egret?” he asked.
I was stumped. “There are more than one kind?”
It turned out that there are three types of white egrets in Florida (and in most of the US) and they are relatively easy to distinguish, once you know what you’re looking for. The telltale features are the legs, and the beak. Here, for your enjoyment, I’ll spell out for you the differences that started me so long ago on the path to being an avid birder.
Also known as a Common Egret, and (locally) American Egret. This is the largest of the three white egrets, and as the name would indicate, the most widespread and numerous. The Great Egret sports a bright yellow bill, and dark black legs.
During breeding season, the male Great Egret develops a green color around the eyes, and a beautiful wispy plume of feathers, which drape over its back and well past its tail. This gorgeous plumage nearly led to its demise in the early 1900s, as the feathers were highly sought as fashion accessories. In fact, the Audubon Society chose this bird in 1953 as its symbol, and it was formed in part to protect birds such as this one.
Great Egrets are common in populated areas, and you are likely to see them grazing in lawns and along hedgerows, seeking insects and reptiles. They are also widespread along coasts and wetlands where they tend to dine on crustaceans and small fish. Great Egrets may be confused with the Great White Heron (see below), but that bird is a rare and local bird in southwest Florida’s Gulf Coast.
The Snowy Egret can be immediately distinguished by its black bill. It also has black legs (in the adult) but bright yellow feet, which give it an almost painted comic appearance. My wife likes to comment that they are “wearing their waders.” Snowy egrets are more often found in the shallow waters of wetlands and coastal areas, and they also graze for crustaceans, insects and fish. You may occasionally see them flitting about, skimming the surface of the water and dragging their feet, dipping after their prey.
The Snowy Egret also sports a wonderful wispy set of breeding plumage. These birds, along with the great egret, were nearly hunted to extinction for their feathers, but numbers have rebounded quite well in the US.
The third of the white egrets gets its name from its propensity to flock in pastures, where it feeds on insects stirred up by grazing cattle. It is not entirely uncommon to see a Cattle Egret perched directly on the back of a cow, resting from its search for prey.
The Cattle Egret is recognized by its yellow beak combined with yellow legs (although the immature birds tend to have a grey colored beak, they can still be told by the yellow in their legs – unique to egrets). The Cattle Egret also brings a splash of color to its plumage during the breeding season, with adult males sporting a very recognizable patch of plumes the color of Georgia clay.
Great White Heron
As I mentioned earlier, this somewhat rare large white bird is not an egret at all, but it a white-colored morph of the Great Blue Heron. This variety is rarely seen anywhere but the southwest coast of Florida, from the Florida Keys and Florida Bay up to occasionally as far north as Tampa Bay. It is a magnificent bird, but is significantly larger than an egret, and the beak and leg colors don’t match any of the egret’s color configurations.
There you have it! A quick primer on white colored egrets, with some easy ways to tell them apart. Are there other white birds out there besides the egrets and herons? Of course! But, that’s a tale for another day…