I had been going to a marsh almost every morning, from the middle of October through November, trying to photograph trumpeter swans, geese, great egrets and ducks. One morning I noticed a white bird that looked much like a great egret but he had a shorter neck and legs and was much smaller. He was out in a field near the marsh but really too far away for a good picture. I saw him almost every morning for a week but never close enough for what I consider a good picture.
The cattle egret is a rare visitor this far north. In fact I had never seen one before, so I was excited. He may have migrated from Canada; this bird is not native to our country and has undergone one of the most rapid and wide-reaching natural expansions of any bird species.
The cattle egret was originally native to parts of southern Spain, Africa and Asia. In the 1930s it expanded its range to South America by flying across the Atlantic Ocean. By the early 1950s it was breeding in Florida and was breeding in Canada in the early 1960s. It is now commonly seen as far west as California.
This little guy is about 20 inches long with an approximate 3-foot wingspan. The non breeding adult has mainly a white plumage, a yellow bill and grayish-yellow legs. During the breeding season he develops buff plumes on the back, breast and crown with a red flush on the bill and legs. He nests in colonies in trees. Food consists of a wide range of prey, particularly insects, as well as frogs and earthworms. Apparently he will also take mouse-sized mammalians, as I witnessed one day.
The bird’s name comes from its habit of hanging out with cattle and other large grazing and browsing animals, and catching small creatures disturbed by the large mammals. In fact, cattle egrets are sometimes seen on the backs of cattle looking for ticks and flies.
So, every morning I looked for this rare white bird out in the marsh, hoping a closer shot would be offered, but one morning he was not out there. As I drove down the road, I saw a white spot way up ahead along the road shoulder. A quick look with the field glasses revealed the cattle egret. Boy was I excited! Not only would he be closer if I was able to approach nearer, but there was no one else around to spook him.
I started my slow and cautious approach with my vehicle, stopping every time he looked a bit suspicious. My camera was already on the window so that sudden hand movement would not spook him should I get lucky. I got within a good photographing distance and grabbed some good shots. Happy as a lark, I was suddenly surprised as he drove his head into the grass and pulled out a wiggling vole. This can’t be true, how lucky can I get?
He then did what all herons and egrets do: he squeezed the vole hard to cripple it and then repeatedly dropped and pecked at it to make sure it was dead before he swallowed it. That’s right, herons and egrets swallow their food whole, so it is important that it is completely dead before going down. I have watched great blue herons spend 10 to 15 minutes “playing” with a bullhead to ensure it’s dead. Then they flip it around and take it head first so the slide down is without complications.
After the cattle egret was sure that the vole was dead, he flipped it head first into his beak and began to swallow it. I was thinking, this little guy is going to choke on that big vole, but no, it went right down with his throat expanding for the journey. He did look a bit cross-eyed after that process but soon went back into hunting mode. I followed him along the road shoulder and he seemed quite convinced, as long as I didn’t push my luck, that the guy with the camera was no threat.
Finally a vehicle came down the road, pulled right up to him and someone jumped out with a camera — to get a picture of his south end going north.
I just sat there awhile hashing over how lucky I had been, knowing I got some super shots of this rare bird. This has been a great area for me, as a week earlier I got some shots of the black morph phase of the red-tailed hawk, a ton of great egret images and a number of great tundra swan-in-flight shots. There also have been some great sunrise and sunset pictures from this area.
Now that winter is arriving and many of the waterfowl have moved farther south, I will miss the excitement this marsh has provided me. The cooperative cattle egret “adventure” will surely be a thing often revisited, though.
Doug Domedion, outdoorsman and nature photographer, resides in Medina. Contact him at (585) 798-4022 or email@example.com .