Great Egret

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I’ve posted recently about how wading birds — birds associated with aquatic habitats like bays, estuaries, and ponds — show up in southern Arizona’s Sonoran Desert environment. It’s a function of two things. First, southern Arizona lies in relatively close proximity to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California), an area that is a natural home to vast numbers of wading birds. Second, we humans have altered our environment in ways that make it possible for some of the waders to live here. In our farmlands we’ve dug irrigation canals and heavily watered our fields. In Tucson, we’ve created parks and golf courses with man-made ponds.

Thus, I wasn’t surprised recently when I encountered a Great Egret warming up just after sunrise in one of Tucson’s urban parks. The park is equipped with ponds and retention basins that provide foraging opportunities for this bird. When I found it, it was roosting atop a tall tree on a small island at the center of one of those ponds.

A Great Egret’s dimensions make it one of the largest birds that I come across in our area. One of these birds stands about 40 inches (just over one meter) tall. However, it is surprisingly lightly built. It weighs less than two pounds (less than a kilogram). That makes it substantially lighter than, for example, a Red-tailed Hawk or many species of duck.

It appears to be extremely ungainly when it is perched as this one is.

It has what appears to be an impossibly long neck, which it keeps contracted when it isn’t foraging. It has an extremely narrow profile and almost comically spindly legs with gigantic splayed toes.

These odd-looking characteristics are highly functional. The egret often hunts in shallow water. Those splayed toes enable it to distribute its weight efficiently on a muddy or sandy bottom, so that it doesn’t sink in too deeply. The very thin legs provide little or no resistance to flowing water, enabling the bird easily to maintain its balance. The egret’s long neck is an important asset for hunting. The egret hunts by standing motionless, sometimes for many minutes at a time, while it waits for prey — perhaps a fish or a frog — to come within striking distance. When that happens it can uncoil its neck with lightning speed and very accurately seize or impale its prey with its long and sharply pointed beak.

The egret in these images wasn’t hunting for prey. Rather, it was warming itself before beginning its day. It’s a fairly common sight to observe these birds atop tall trees or other objects in the early morning.

Images made with a Canon R5, Canon RF 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 IS L zoom lens, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 125, f7.1 @ 1/1000, -1 stop exposure compensation.

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