With the recent discovery of an amazing bird rookery island close to my home, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately watching the nesting behavior of a variety of Florida’s water and wading birds. A small island in the middle of a neighborhood stormwater drainage pond is home to 9 different species during bird nesting season, including Wood Storks, Great Egrets, Little Blue Herons, and more. The habitat is perfect for safe observation and photography, since the nesting birds are safe offshore, but only about a dozen yards away. Over the last few weeks, I’ve taken hundreds of photos of the various species to share with you, and today I’m starting with what is arguably the most spectacular – the Great Egret (Ardea alba).
Already a striking bird with its clean white feathers and long graceful neck, the Great Egret becomes even more amazing during breeding season. The patches on their faces become a brilliant lime green, while their back feathers grow into lovely waving plumes. (These same plumes, called aigrettes, caused a dramatic decline in this species at the end of the 19th century when they became popular adornments for ladies’ hats. Eventually, the backlash against the hunting of birds for their feathers led to the foundation of the National Audubon Society and the first National Wildlife Refuge in the U.S. Learn more here.)
Each year, Great Egret males choose a nesting area and build a nest platform. They then display nearby, looking for a mate by curving their body into an S position, and raising and lowering their bodies.
Male and females often finish building the nest together before the female lays a clutch of 1 – 6 eggs, which are a pale green-blue color. Both parents help to incubate the eggs, which takes 23-26 days.
The hatchlings are little balls of fluff (a friend of mine referred to them as “Don King with a beak”). They grow pretty quickly for large birds, leaving the nest in about 4 weeks and able to fly by about 6 weeks. Great Egrets may then mate again and raise a second brood before bird nesting season ends.
Great Egrets have a widespread range, and can be seen near water in many parts of the U.S. Learn more about this species from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.