By Bryan Stevens
North America’s stately wading birds — egrets, herons, bitterns, ibises and their kin — are well-known wanderers in late summer. As with all birds capable of flight, a pair of strong wings cannot be underestimated. Birds can show up in the most unlikely places.
Take for instance the first confirmed sighting of an American flamingo in Tennessee. This particular flamingo — an almost unthinkable bird for the Volunteer State — showed up along Highway 78 in Lake County on July 13.
Ruben Stoll and Alan Troyer found the flamingo, backing up their discovery with photographs of the large pink bird associating with great egrets and other wading birds. The flamingo created considerable buzz on rare bird alerts in several nearby states. Many birders rushed to add this exceptional visitor to their state and life lists.
In summers past, other exciting wading birds ranging from little blue herons to wood storks have excited the region’s birders. I recently celebrated my own sighting of one of these wanderers that made a stop at my fish pond on July 10.
I had stepped outside my house and let the door slam a little too loudly behind me, causing a stately great egret near my fish pond to take flight and fly over the roof of my house. I regretted instantly not having a camera with me.
Two days later, I got another chance. The great egret made another appearance. Unfortunately for the tall bird, he attracted the ire of the resident red-winged blackbirds. In a most inhospitable manner, the blackbirds attacked and dived at the egret, which made some awkward attempts to evade the angry blackbirds. Blackbirds are protective of their territory and have swooped at me several times when I’ve ventured too close to their favored cattails.
More prepared on this occasion, I had my camera with me and managed to get a few photographs of the egret. Oddly enough, the bird is actually the second great egret to visit my fish pond. The first one made an unseasonable stop several years ago on a snowy December afternoon — hardly a time of year I might have expected a visit from an egret in the mountains of Northeast Tennessee.
The next day, only a few miles from my home, Lauri Sneyd Vance took a photograph of a great egret that stopped at her home in Limestone Cove in Unicoi County, Tennessee. Having seen my Facebook post, she notified me that she had also received a visit from an egret. Was it the same bird? Perhaps.
The great egret stands 3.3 feet tall. With an all-white plumage, a long yellow bill and dark legs, this egret is often described as graceful and elegant. Its likeness was incorporated into the logo for the National Audubon Society, an organization formed to protect egrets and other wading birds from a wanton slaughter in the late 1800s when millions of the birds were killed so their feathers could be used in women’s fashions.
During the breeding season, adult great egrets sprout long plumes on their back. These frilly feathers are known as aigrettes, which are used to attract the attention of prospective mates in elaborate mating displays.
According to the All About Birds website, great egrets feed mostly on fish, but they also eat amphibians, reptiles, rodents, songbirds, and crustaceans. On visits to the South Carolina coast, I’ve observed great egrets dining on frogs and small fish. In prime habitat, flocks of great egrets will gather to forage together in wetlands or around ponds. More sociable than some herons, great egret also nest and roost communally.
The other North American egrets include snowy egret, reddish egret and cattle egret. Other egrets found around the world include the intermediate egret, little egret, slaty egret, dimorphic egret and Chinese egret.
As summer advances, keep your eye on area rivers, lakes and ponds. It’s the best time of year to see egrets, herons and other long-legged wading birds. In the case of the American flamingo, I realize that lightning rarely strikes twice. If you do happen to see a gangly pink bird, let me know.