I enjoyed a recent trip to Atlanta, Ga. The extended weekend visited gave me the opportunity to see some birds I don’t see often at home in Northeast Tennessee, including Brown-headed Nuthatch and Pine Warbler.
I observed a Great Egret at Murphey Candler Park in Brookhaven, Georgia. Hiking trails around a small lake at this park offer some convenient locations for scanning the lake for wading birds and waterfowl. The egret was the first Great Egret I’ve observed in the Atlanta area.
I had visited this park hoping to find dragonflies, but for the most part struck out on finding these winged insects. I was compensated not only with the egret, but with observations of Double-crested Cormorants, Canada Geese, Mallards, Belted Kingfishers, Cedar Waxwings and Song Sparrows.
Egrets are members of a family of birds known as Ardeidae, which includes herons, bitterns and egrets. The Great Egret is a very stately, graceful bird with white plumage, long legs and a sharp, yellow bill. It is smaller than the Great Blue Heron. The Great Egret stands 3.3 feet tall and has a wingspan of 52 to 67 inches. On average, however, they weigh only about 2.2 pounds.
These egrets nest in large colonies. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the colonial nesting habits of these birds made them particularly vulnerable to humans who slaughtered the birds in the millions to harvest their feathers for use in the fashion industry. The Great Egret and other wading birds were almost decimated in order to decorate fashionable hats for women.
The National Audubon Society was founded in 1905, largely as an effort to combat the unregulated slaughter of birds like Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and Roseate Spoonbills. Now, more than a century later, the Great Egret still serves as the official logo for the National Audubon Society. In addition, the Great Egret has rebounded from those dark years. In fact, this bird now ranges as far north as southern Canada in appropriate wetland habitats. During spring and fall migration, Great Egrets also pass through northeast Tennessee. Look for them along rivers, lakes and on small farm ponds.
During visits to favorite birding locations in Elizabethton and Erwin, I have also observed Green Herons and Great Blue Herons.
The Green Heron can easily be overlooked as it lurks near a stream’s banks or the edges of a pond. This heron is not tall and stately like the Great Egret or Great Blue Heron. The bird is a patient ambush predator capable of remaining motionless for extended periods as it waits for prey to move within reach of its sharp, pointed bill. I’m always flushing these herons from cover before I even realize they are present.
I do get fortunate on occasion, however, and manage to approach a Green Heron without panicking the bird into a hasty flight. If you stand very still and don’t make sudden movements, you can manage to observe this bird from a respectful distance.
Such was the case of a Green Heron that I found stalking the edges of the pond at Erwin Fishery Park. I had my camera, so I snapped some photographs as I watched the heron’s slow, deliberate steps along the pond’s edge. Then, with a lightning-quick motion, the bird lunged its bill into the water and snatched a large tadpole. The heron required a brief time to get the wiggling tadpole positioned. After that technicality was resolved, the heron swallowed the plump tadpole quickly and almost immediately resumed search for more prey.
The unfortunate tadpole had developed hind legs, which did not prove an obstacle for the bird swallowing it, but still had a tail. Although it was very close to achieving frog-hood, this particular tadpole instead became part of the varied diet of a Green Heron, which can also include fish, crustaceans, insects and even mice. At this same Erwin pond, I once watched another Green Heron patiently stalking and successfully snatching dragonflies that perched on pond vegetation within reach of the bird’s bill.
The Green Heron is usually present in Northeast Tennessee from April to October. The bird migrates to Central America for the winter months. A few other herons, including the Great Blue Heron and the Black-crowned Night-Heron, live year-round in the region.