Snowy Egrets Are Common Along Gulf Coast
By Les Harrison
Wakulla County Extension Director
Much to the envy of residents further north, Wakulla County’s inhabitants can still visit the coast on selected days in February without parkas and snowshoes. Nothing says fun at the beach quite like frostbite.
Granted, the cool temperature does not make it ideal for frolicking in the water, but a casual stroll along the shoreline can be quite enjoyable. The tranquil isolation and lapping waves offer a repose from the stresses of contemporary life.
All around the native wildlife goes about its business as it has since long before humans first came to the area. An assortment of birds soar in the sky and dart between the waves in search of a quick snack.
One such avian example is the snowy egret. Egretta thula, as this bird is scientifically known, is a full time resident of the beaches and back waters of the gulf coast.
This small heron is in the same family, but not genus, with the cattle egret which is commonly seen in fields and pastures. The cattle egret usually has some reddish feathers and it arrived in North America about 100 years ago from north Africa and southwestern Europe.
The snowy egret, as the name implies, has white feathers with no supplemental tones or shades. Adults stand about two feet in height, sometime with the appearance of slouching shoulders which rest the head on the chest.
Fashions and styles being what they are, this bird’s fine and fluffy white feathers became quite popular as an adornment for women’s hats during the late 19th century. While mimicry can be flattering, it can also be hazardous to bird’s survival prospects.
Market hunters, in an effort to capitalize on strong economic demand and high prices for the wispy plumage, focused their efforts on this and similar species. Untold numbers of this bird were slaughtered to satisfy the fickle desires of the style conscious in the urban salons and manor houses.
Luckily for the remaining snowy egrets, feathers became passé for the human population and the hunting pressure was off. Time and Federal protection allowed this species to recover to its former numbers.
This bird eats mostly creatures associated with aquatic habitat. Fish, frogs, and crustacean are on the menu, but so are insects and worms which present themselves to this wading bird.
Its large yellow feet provide a stable platform from which to hunt and are well adapted to raking through the sand and mud to reveal camouflaged creatures. Their hunting grounds include saltmarsh pools, tidal channels, tidal flats, freshwater marshes, swamps, inlets, and pond edges, usually preferring brackish or marine habitats with shallow water.
Sometimes other foraging water birds will appear to work collectively with the snowy egrets forming a mixed species groups, each using its unique assets to scour for disguised nutrition.
Very few prey species can evade their fate. It seems a walk on Wakulla’s waterfronts can be a pleasurable experience for more than just the human inhabitants.