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Amelia Islander

The Rare Reddish Egret

Story and photos by Gail Pfoh

They are tall, long-legged, have long, beautiful ‘hair,’ and they are great dancers! Who are they? They are Reddish Egrets, the rarest of all egrets in the United States and designated by the State of Florida as a threatened species. Keep your “eyes to the skies” because we are extremely fortunate to see them once in a while here on Amelia Island and in our surrounding ecosystem.

This rare, beautiful wading bird comes in two color phases, or morphs. There is a dark morph and a white morph. According to Audubon’s Guide to North America Birds, either color morph can be born to any Reddish Egret parents.

The egrets remain either the white or dark morph for the rest of their lives, beginning with their downy feathers as nestlings. The white morph is far more rare, and only a few exist in the entire Florida population of Reddish Egrets. The white morph has entirely white plumage and is sometimes confused with the Great Egret, which is also all white and found in abundance in our area.

Although now the number of white-morph Reddish Egrets is very low, Audubon notes that the “white morph apparently made up a higher percentage of the total population prior to persecution by plume hunters” in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

An easy way to spot a dark-morph Reddish Egret is to look near shallow salt or brackish coastal bodies of water in our area. Go just after dawn or late in the day near dusk when they are most active. You’ll probably first recognize one by its striking plumage colors of rust or red and its gray or slate-gray feathers, accompanied by a beautiful two-tone pink and black bill. What also stands out is the long, shaggy mane-like plumage on the neck of this egret. During courtship displays, the male of the species will stretch his head and neck upward and backward with shaggy feathers fully raised, then toss his head forward repeatedly.

Once you spot a Reddish Egret, if he didn’t catch your eye with his rich colors, he will definitely make you take notice when he starts to dance!

Yes, dance. Casual observers and birders alike will tell you that this egret has quite a unique foraging behavior, which will remind you of dancing. He loves to run through the water (often quite erratically) as he hunts for the small fish upon which he likes to feed. His hyperactive feeding behavior includes running, jumping, weaving, and zigzagging in the water. As he does this, he often spreads his wings into a sort of umbrella or canopy as he searches for prey.

Audubon states that these egrets primarily eat small fish such as minnows, mullet, and killifish, as well as frogs, tadpoles, and crustaceans.

The Avian Research and Conservation Institute (ARCI) is headquartered in Florida and studies the Reddish Egret. It notes that this egret “is a highly specialized feeder, ecologically restricted to a very narrow coastal habitat that is vulnerable to human disturbance, storm effects, and climate change. The Florida population is estimated at 350 to 400 pairs, with 100 to 125 in Florida Bay and the Florida Keys.”

In conjunction with partners, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ARCI gathers data on the movements of the egrets via satellite telemetry. It is hoped that this data can help address “important management topics, including habitat needs, seasonal movements, site fidelity, breeding effort, survivorship, and sources of mortality.” This information may unlock the key to the future of the rarest egret in the United States: our beautiful Reddish Egret.