By Bryan Stevens
Late summer has a sort of lazy feel of anticipation to it. Most birds are finishing up their nesting season. Hungry fledglings appear at feeders in the company of adults. In recent weeks, I’ve noticed an explosion in the number of hummingbirds visiting my feeders and garden flowers. I’ve also noticed the vanguard of migrant birds that are starting to make appearances as fall migration approaches. It’s not just songbirds, however, that are on the move. Some large and rather conspicuous birds have been attracting attention in recent weeks, including a variety of wading birds.
Sightings this summer of long-legged wading birds in Tennessee and Virginia that are far outside of their usual range have included cattle egret, white ibis and roseate spoonbill. In addition, Susan Hubley reported on Facebook about a tricolored heron at John Sevier Lake in Rogersville, Tennessee, on July 25.
This heron is not usually found this far inland from the coast. Another tricolored heron showed up at Paddle Creek Pond in Bristol, Tennessee, on July 30. Adrianna Nelson reported the sighting on Bristol-Birds, an email network for sharing unusual bird sightings in the region. She also shared some photographs of the bird.
“This is the first time I have seen a tricolored heron in Tennessee,” she wrote in a response to an email I sent her. “It is a long way off from its usual range. I have seen them before on Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina.”
She described the refuge as an excellent place to see waders, painted buntings, and many other birds. “I get the chance to go almost every year since it is so close to where we vacation in Hilton Head,” Adrianna wrote.
She also commented on her unexpected observation.
“It is exciting to see something where it doesn’t usually belong,” Adrianna wrote. “I was definitely surprised to see the heron. That’s part of the fun of birding — you never know what to expect!”
She was also excited to share the sighting on Bristol-Birds. “It’s fun to share sightings with the birding community so they can also enjoy rare or unusual birds in our region,” she wrote.
Adrianna noted that she has been birding since age nine. “It all started when I saw a little gray bird hopping around in our yard,” she recalled. “I noticed it was only at our house around the winter months, and I started to wonder what the bird was.”
After some searching online, she successfully identified the bird as a dark-eyed junco.
“During my search, I was surprised by the wide variety of birds, and I wanted to find as many as possible,” Adrianna wrote. “Since then, I was hooked!
While diverting storms can’t be ruled out for causing some of these birds to detour into the region, it’s also normal behavior for young wading birds to disperse far and wide after leaving the nest. North American waders, or wading birds, include such long-legged species as herons, egrets, bitterns, ibises, storks and spoonbills. Most species are associated with wetlands or coastal areas.
Late summer birding is usually a period of doldrums as heat and humidity can discourage birders as well as diminish bird activity. However, it’s also the time of year when birders can make some unexpected surprises as wandering waders explore uncharted territory. Some other recent emails have reminded me of that fact.
James Elliott sent me an email describing a bird that is most likely a great egret. “For the second time in 30 years, I saw a magnificent, all-white heron yesterday on the South Houston River,” James wrote.
“I live at the very terminus of Riverside, Bullock Hollow, and Paddle Creek roads,” he wrote. “Big Springs Road is opposite across the river.”
When the bird departed, he said it flew east. He described the bird as “totally white” and “beautiful in flight.” He expressed regret that he was unable to get photographs.
Susan Schreiner, however, did get photographs of a great egret she observed near her home along the South Holston River in Bristol.
“We had a nice visitor today along the South Holston River,” Susan wrote in the email she sent. “When we first spotted it, it was in our tree and then flew down to the water.”
She said the egret has associated with some great blue herons in the vicinity. “It’s quite distinctive,” she wrote of the stately wading bird.
The diversity of the region’s bird life has impressed her. “Coming from Illinois, this is all pretty amazing for me,” she wrote.
The egret is not the only exceptional bird that Susan has observed. “I occasionally see a bald eagle fly down the river that is just breathtaking,” she wrote in her email.
Through email, James and I discussed whether the bird he saw was a great white heron or a great egret. Since he saw the bird and I did not, I am inclined to go with his identification of a great white heron. Although rare outside of Florida, this type of heron — simply a great blue heron in an alternative plumage — has over the years been spotted a handful of times in and around Bristol. Whether an egret or heron, his sighting is more evidence of the tendency of wading birds to wander widely in late summer.
The great egret became a motivational symbol for conservation with the foundation of the National Audubon Society in 1905. Today, the organization has nearly 500 local chapters, each of which is an independent non-profit organization voluntarily affiliated with the National Audubon Society.
These chapters often organize birdwatching field trips and conservation-related activities. The National Audubon Society spearheaded efforts to end the mass slaughter of various bird species. Some birds were killed for food, but millions were also killed for their showy feathers that were destined to decorate stylish attire worn as a symbol of high fashion. As early as 1910, some states began passing legislation to abolish trade in bird plumes. The federal government also came to the assistance of birds with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was a law first enacted in 1916 to implement measures to protect and conserve migratory birds.
In 1953, a great egret in flight was chosen as the symbol for the official logo of the National Audubon Society, which was formed in part to prevent the killing of birds for their feathers. Birds like great egrets, snowy egrets, roseate spoonbills and other long-legged waders had been decimated before people responded to the wanton destruction being visited upon these beautiful and awe-inspiring creatures.
The great egret belongs to the genus Ardea, which includes various egrets and herons. Other members of this genus include Goliath heron, black-headed heron, purple heron and pied heron.
The tricolored heron belongs to the genus Egretta, which consists of various herons and egrets that mostly breed in warmer climates. In North America, other members of this genus include snowy egret, reddish egret and little blue heron. Older birding field guides may refer to the tricolored heron as the Louisiana heron, which was an older popular name for the species.
Although many herons and egrets are tall and stately, there are some pint-sized members of this group of birds. In North America, the smallest is the least bittern. The largest of the world’s herons is the aptly named Goliath heron, which is also known as the giant heron. This wading bird can stand five feet tall and weigh 11 pounds. The Goliath heron is native to sub-Saharan Africa but also ranges into southwest and south Asia. The world’s largest heron feeds almost exclusively on fish.
Other descriptive names for some of the world’s herons include boat-billed heron, white-crested tiger heron, zigzag heron, rufous-bellied heron, whistling heron and white-necked heron.
To try your own luck at observing herons and egrets, scout bodies of water such as ponds, rivers, lakes and streams to increase the odds of getting your own binoculars on one of these elegant waders.