Photographed at Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas
Among the most elegant of the herons, the slender Snowy Egret sets off immaculate white plumage with black legs and brilliant yellow feet. Those feet seem to play a role in stirring up or herding small aquatic animals as the egret forages. Breeding Snowy Egrets grow filmy, curving plumes that once fetched astronomical prices in the fashion industry, endangering the species. Early conservationists rallied to protect egrets by the early twentieth century, and this species is once again a common sight in shallow coastal wetlands.
Male and female Snowy Egrets take turns incubating their eggs. As one mate takes over for the other, it sometimes presents a stick, almost as if passing a baton. Both parents continue caring for the young when they hatch.
During the breeding season, adult Snowy Egrets develop long, wispy feathers on their backs, necks, and heads. In 1886 these plumes were valued at $32 per ounce, which was twice the price of gold at the time. Plume-hunting for the fashion industry killed many Snowy Egrets and other birds until reforms were passed in the early twentieth century. The recovery of shorebird populations through the work of concerned citizens was an early triumph and helped give birth to the conservation movement.
Adult Snowy Egrets have greenish-yellow feet for most of the year, but at the height of the breeding season their feet take on a much richer, orange-yellow hue. The bare skin on their face also changes color, from yellow to reddish.
Snowy Egrets sometimes mate with other heron species and produce hybrid offspring. They have been known to hybridize with Tricolored Herons, Little Blue Herons, and Cattle Egrets.
Photographed in Shoveler's Pond in Anahuac NWR
The furtive Least Bittern is often little more than a voice in the reeds that is frustratingly difficult to locate. But these diminutive herons reward patience and will charm birders persistent enough to discover them in their wetland haunts. They’re smartly clad in chestnut, buff, and black, with the male more richly colored than the female. Although drainage and development of wetlands has reduced their populations, Least Bitterns persist over much of their historical range, and are most readily seen during the breeding season.
When alarmed, the Least Bittern freezes in place with its bill pointing up, turns both eyes toward the source of alarm, and sometimes sways to resemble windblown marsh vegetation.
Perhaps surprisingly, tiny Least Bitterns use areas with deeper water than the much larger, longer-legged American Bittern. Least Bitterns can do this because their long, agile toes and curved claws allow them to grasp reeds and hunt small prey while suspended from these precarious over-water perches.
John James Audubon noted that a young captive Least Bittern was able to walk with ease in a 1.5-inch gap between two books, even though the bird's body normally measured 2.25 inches across—indicating that it could compress its body to an extraordinary degree to squeeze between marsh stems and reeds.
A very rare dark form of Least Bittern, known as “Cory’s Least Bittern,” was once considered a separate species. With a black bill, entirely black back, and rich chestnut cheeks, belly, and wing coverts, this distinctive bird was highly prized by bird “collectors” as soon as it was discovered in Florida in 1885. Cory’s Least Bitterns were seen frequently around the Great Lakes, especially around Toronto, in the late 1800s, before its favored marshes were destroyed. Only 7 or 8 records of this mysterious bird are known worldwide since 1973.
As in many other small herons, Least Bittern’s loral area (between bill and eye) is unfeathered, and this skin can change colors, depending on what the bird is doing. During courtship, copulation, or territorial conflict, the normally yellowish skin can flush brilliant cherry red in males—a sight worth watching for in spring and summer.
In some brackish marshes, notably in South Carolina, Least Bitterns may nest close to colonies of Boat-tailed Grackles, which typically choose areas without ground predators. The grackles also aggressively chase or mob hawks and gulls, another advantage for the bitterns.
Least Bitterns occasionally turn up far away from their usual range and habitat. In September 2007, for instance, a migrant was found at Vila do Porto, Azores, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Researchers tracked breeding Least Bitterns in western New York and found the birds used about 24 acres while feeding themselves and their offspring—about the area of 10 city blocks.