Even experienced birders sometimes see birds that make them say, “What the heck is that?” Such was the case with this unusual bird, which I spotted on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Egrets and herons of a variety of species wander these shores, but it’s rare you’ll see one like this. Though interspecies breeding is pretty unusual in the bird world, this beautiful bird has been identified by reviewers at eBird as a Great Blue Heron x Great Egret hybrid (Ardea herodias x alba). Here’s how they came to their decision.
The first indication that something is a little off here is the feather coloration. Great Egrets, at all life stages, are pure white. This bird’s body and wings are light gray. If you look closely at the front side of the neck, you’ll see very light grayish speckling. Great Blue Herons have this pattern, though in darker gray. (And no, it’s not a juvenile Great Blue Heron – they look very much like the adults.)
Head and Bill.
The heavy dark-colored bill is another good indication this isn’t just a Great Egret. Great Egrets have yellow bills, and they’re a bit more slender when compared side-by-side. However, it lacks the head crest feathers usually seen in a Great Blue Heron.
OK, so maybe it’s just a Great Blue Heron with unusual coloration and feathers, right? Ah, but look at the legs. The legs of this bird are a shiny black… like the Great Egret. Great Blue Herons have grayish legs. Also, while it’s hard to tell, this bird is a bit smaller than a usual Great Blue Heron.
So, when we put all these factors together, the most likely possibility is that this is a Great Blue Heron x Great Egret hybrid. They’re not unknown in the bird world, though very rarely reported. Many hybrid species are sterile and unable to reproduce. Even if this bird is not, it would likely have great difficulty finding a mate of either species. However, it has been spotted in this location for nearly a year, and seems to be thriving among the local population.
If you’re interested in seeing this unusual Great Blue Heron x Great Egret hybrid for yourself, it’s actually pretty easy to find. It’s reliably spotted at the fishing pier at Fort De Soto Park near St. Petersburg, Florida. If you do go, remember to follow safe birding rules – keep your distance, take only photographs, and don’t attempt to feed the bird (or any others nearby).