The Reddish Egret stands out as one of North America's most beautiful and interesting members of the heron family. This stately wading bird has a very limited range in the United States, primarily restricted to the Gulf Coast states, south Florida and the southern Atlantic Coast states. Occasionally it turns up in southern California, but outside of these areas, the Reddish Egret is considered very rare.
This long-necked, long-legged wader stands 30 inches tall and inhabits coastal tidal flats, salt marshes, shallow open salt pans and mangrove-lined shores and lagoons. It prefers to feed in protected bays and estuaries as well as calm, shallow coastal waters. The bird's unique feeding behavior makes it so much fun for birders to observe, study and photograph.
If you have never observed the "water dance" of a Reddish Egret, it is difficult to describe this feeding behavior because words really don't do it justice. Try to imagine a big-bodied bird with pencil-thin legs running around on hot coals, staggering sideways, leaping in the air, flapping its wings and occasionally jabbing its bill downward and grabbing a fish all at the same time. Now imagine the same bird doing all these things and looking beautiful and graceful while doing them. That is the feeding behavior of a Reddish Egret.
The bird's two distinctly different adult color morphs also make it stand out from other members of the heron family. The far more common dark-morph Reddish Egret has a mostly slate gray or bluish body and a reddish head and neck with a pink and black bill. The uncommon white-morph Reddish Egret is exactly that: all white with the same two-toned bill. Interestingly, mated pairs can be of the same or different morphs, and young birds in the same nest can be either or both color morphs.
The Reddish Egret experienced a dramatic decline in its population during the heyday of the plume trade during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Plume hunters raided breeding colonies and completely wiped out some populations. The Reddish Egret became so uncommon that it was reportedly not seen in Florida between 1927 and 1937! Thankfully, things have improved for the Reddish Egret since it gained complete protection from persecution by plume hunters more than 50 years ago. Today there are close to 2,000 pairs in the United States.
There is nothing else in nature that quite matches the "dance" of the Reddish Egret. If you have never had the experience yourself, why not make a trip south this winter? You may become mesmerized for hours by watching the water dancer.
Mating: The male perches in a prospective nest site and stretches his head and neck up and back. With his shaggy neck feathers fully raised, he tosses his head forward repeatedly. The male may walk circles around a female standing in shallow water while tossing his head and raising his wings.
Nest Sites: A colonial nester. Often found in mixed nesting colonies with other herons, egrets, spoonbills and cormorants. In Texas, colonies often occur on dry coastal islands with brushy thickets of prickly pear and yucca, while in Florida, colonies are typically in red mangroves or brackish marshes.
Nest: Usually a platform of sticks and twigs with little or no lining on the ground or 3 to 15 feet above the water.
Clutch: Most often three to four eggs but as many as seven. Eggs are pale blue-green.
Incubation Period: Both sexes will incubate the eggs for 25 to 26 days.
Nestling Period: Both parents feed the semialtricial young by regurgitating fish for three to four weeks after hatching.
Fledging Period: Young Reddish Egrets may leave the nest at about 4 weeks old but will not be capable of sustained flight until 6 or 7 weeks.
Food: A range of aquatic creatures. Mostly eats a variety of small fish — minnows, mullet and killifish — but also crustaceans, frogs, tadpoles and some aquatic insects.