Foam Lake Birding No. 182

No. 182
            Several days ago we got a call from a local birder who reported seeing a Great Egret along the Yellowhead Highway just north of Dafoe.  Now my wife and I have seen many Great Egrets over the years that we have traveled the USA but have never seen one in Saskatchewan.  One has a better chance of seeing a Whopping Crane here than a Great Egret even though the egret is common and the crane is endangered.  Anyway we decided to check it out.  Sure enough as we approached the Quill Lake overflow there were actually two Great Egrets in the ditch right along the road.  Unfortunately, we were not able to get any pictures as the road was very busy and stopping along the shoulder would have been unwise.  We did find an approach nearby but the egrets flew to the far side of the slough so we observed them for several minutes with binoculars and then went home. 
            In Canada the Great Egret is common only in the extreme southern tip of Ontario elsewhere it is a straggler.  In the USA and Mexico it is common in coastal and marshy areas. 
            Identifying the Great Egret can be a bit of a problem especially in the southern USA.  There are two other white egrets, the Snowy and Cattle, as well as a white race of the Great Blue Heron and the all white juveniles of the Little Blue Heron and Reddish Egret.  One then has to look at other field marks such as the colour and size of the bill, colour of the legs and feet and size of the bird itself.  In Saskatchewan things are a little easier as there are only two other white herons, the Cattle Egret and Snowy Egret and like the Great Egret both are rare.  Standing over three feet high the Great Egret is the largest with  a massive yellow bill and black legs and feet; the two foot high Snowy has a more delicate and slender all black bill and black legs with bright yellow feet; the Cattle Egret is the smallest of the three with a stubby pinkish bill and light coloured legs and feet.  As with all herons the males and females are the same. 
            The terms "egret and heron" have no scientific rationale and are used in much the same way that the terms "dove and pigeon" are used.  Herons that had feathers suitable for the millinery industry were called egrets after the French word for  feathers "aigrettes".  The rest were simply called herons.  Presently, with a few exceptions, the term "egrets" applies to the white herons and the rest are simply "herons". 
            Over the years there has been confusion as to whether a long necked bird is a crane or heron because they look so much the same.  The easiest way to tell them apart is when they are in flight.  A heron/egret flies with its neck folded back so that the head is tucked into the shoulders while a crane flies with its neck stretched straight out.  Another difference is that herons nest in trees (usually in colonies) while cranes nest in marshes on beds of marsh grasses and cattails. 
            This week's photo of a Great Egret was taken several years ago at the San Elijo Lagoon just north of San Diego, CA.