Wednesday, 30 April 2008
Egrets … we've had a few
Every evening, dozens of great egrets, the occasional little egret and a handful of white ibis leave the foreshore for their dormitory below my balcony. It's like a soap opera with feathers: a few squabbles, a lot of jostling and endless preening. As far as I can tell, no one's murdered anyone yet. But it's early days.
I'm coming to terms with egret identification. I know, I know ... we only get five white egretty things, so why am I confused? Well, there are many answers to that question but we'll stick with the least offensive — they look alike. (At least I can tell the difference between a pelican and a mooring buoy. Not everyone I know can say that.)
This is how I tell them apart. YMMV.
First off, great egrets are big (about 1 m tall). That's helpful when they're standing next to intermediate egrets, which are not so big (about 90 cm). Of course, intermediates aren't exactly small: they are bigger than little egrets. (Anyone else reminded of the John Cleese – Ronnie Barker – Ronnie Corbett sketch about social class?*) Both great and intermediate egrets have yellow beaks. In the former, the gape is monstrous and extends back behind the eye, whereas in the intermediate it is level with the eye. That's a handy indicator but what makes them even easier to tell apart is the difference in neck when hunting. Intermediates look normal. The greats just look weird — they rest their heads on the crook of their neck. That can't be right.
Little egrets are smaller than the aforementioned species. (If they weren't, they'd have a pretty stupid common name.) But they're not so different in size from the white phase of the reef heron/egret. Both are about 55 – 65 cm tall. Little egrets are distinguished by their fancy, ribbon-like head plumes, which are not hugely obvious in these photos but are much clearer in real life. The Australian subspecies also has yellow skin around the eye. The reef heron is nowhere near as ostentatious.
As for the cattle egret ... that's easy to distinguish because it has a bright yellow bill and it's a bit ... well ... chunky. I guess that's why it hangs around cattle. They have a slimming effect.
There's been a phase shift in the dormitory arrangements. The white ibis have taken over and pushed the great egrets to the wobbly outer branches. Meanwhile, the little egrets have insinuated themselves among the foliage. It is a soap opera.
* Well, here it is again.