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What’s the difference between an egret?

Recently I’ve published a blog about one of my favorite kind of birds, the great bittern. But there are a lot of different types of herons here in The Netherlands that are well worth seeing and photographing. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to see quite a few different heron species in the last couple of weeks. So, for this week’s blog: a selection of long legs and pointy beaks!

Two of the most common heron-like species are the grey heron, and the stork. Most people will be able to tell these two iconic birds apart. Grey herons are very common, and can be seen preying near pretty much any body of water; small ponds, large lakes, rivers, ditches. Their hunting tactic is centered around stealth and patience. For minutes they can stand motionless near the water’s edge, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Storks have made a astonishing comeback. Fifty years ago they almost went extinct, but after a lot of effort from conservation organizations and volunteers, they’re back, and they are here to stay.

But wait, storks aren’t herons right? No, they’re not. Although they somewhat resemble a heron, with their long beaks and legs, they’re actually part of a different family, ciconiidae. There is a long-running local joke about mixing up storks and herons, originating from the coat of arms of The Hague. The symbol contains a stork, but people often refer to that bird as the ‘heron from The Hague’.

When it comes to ‘white egrets’, things get a little more complicated. Four different species of herons with a white plumage can naturally occur here. The great egret and the little egret are relatively common. Cattle egrets are rare, but a handful of birds are present year round. Squacco herons are very rare; only one or two birds are seen here every year. For now, let’s focus on the first three.

The great (white) egret is, as the name suggests, the largest of the three species. Its build and size resemble that of a grey heron. The long, pointy beak is bright yellow/orange for most parts of the year; only during the breading season it turns dark. During the colder months, large numbers of great egrets migrate here for wintering. Like the grey heron, great white egrets prey motionless, or by slowly sneaking.

On the contrary, little egrets are busy little creatures. Constantly moving, they hunt in shallow water, looking for anything that moves. Their yellow toes are a distinct feature, especially when it is difficult to estimate the size. Great egrets are significantly bigger, and have completely dark legs and toes. Most little egrets are present during the breading season and the summer months; they head south for wintering.

Another busy little heron-like creature is the cattle egret. They’re called cattle egret for a good reason, because they love hanging around cattle! A group of grazing cattle scare all kinds of insects and amphibians; in order not to get trampled, they get out of the cattle’s way. Cattle egret know this, and use it to their advantage, trying to snatch every grasshopper that jumps up. Not all cattle enjoy a small heron running around their legs though. This cow’s had enough: a small chase and some howling follows. For a minute, the egret keeps its distance, but slowly but surely it starts hunting again, closer and closer to the cow.

Not all cattle seems to be bothered by these small egrets. In 2016, I had the change to watch and photograph another cattle egret, near and on a group of Highland cattle. On? Yes, on Highland cattle.

A remarkable feature about cattle egrets is their relative short beak size. It is thicker and more stocky than the long, pointy beaks from the little and great egret. The cattle egret’s build is also more stocky and squat. The shorter neck, the relatively bigger body; combined with the short orange beak, and the completely dark legs and toes, makes it possible to tell them apart from little egrets. Especially in flight, the ‘dark legs, short orange beak’ contrasts a little egret’s ‘light toes, long dark beak’.

There are, of course, exceptions that complicate things. The color of the beak of any egret depends on the time of year, and the age of the bird. The size of a bird is sometimes hard to tell, particularly in flight. There have been cases of hybrids of cattle and little egrets. Still, with a few clues, most ‘white egrets’ can be determined quite easily. So, next time you see a white egret, check their toes, beak, legs, and size, so you know who you’re dealing with!