An Hour with an Egret

The ever elegant egret was the subject of a post on this blog in August last year.  I have long wanted to see and photograph this bird displaying its breeding plumage, which until yesterday evening I had only ever seen in photos. The mud flats and tidal shallows near the mouth of the Barham River play host to many species of birds especially around dusk.

So as the breeding season for this egret is October to December, yesterday evening I walked slowly along the banks of the river when the sun was an hour or thereabouts above the horizon, hoping the egret might make an appearance. Golden evening light alternated with duller light as occasional low clouds west drifted through the area. As it turned out, I was rewarded with the arrival of this solitary eastern great egret. For an hour or so, he walked up and down his side of the river, and I walked up and down mine. We kept a close eye on each other. From previous experience I know that a river width is about as close as this bird will let me approach without taking off. It was a most enjoyable hour.

But as usual when I’m on a mission armed with a camera and with a particular subject in mind, serendipity threw irresistible distractions across my path. The first was this new holland honeyeater, which momentarily alighted on a solitary fragile looking reed waving in the wind.

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The new holland honeyeater will not pose for photos. It’s a case of point and shoot the second you spot him land, or he’ll be gone.
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The new holland honeyeater up close. That is indeed a stern look. I was clearly in his sights.
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There are many varieties of crimson rosella differentiated mostly by colour scheme. The vivid crimson and bright blue displayed by this bird is my favourite.  I wasn’t sure whether or not he thought he was hiding behind that vertical stick up the midline of his face. He sat frozen in this position while I took a few photos.
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I took this photo in winter last year (also at the Barham River). I include it here for contrast with the photo immediately following. The flawlessly smooth surface of the plumage on this bird is the non-breeding plumage.
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This is the breeding plumage. The feathers on the neck and body can be smoothed down as shown in the next photo. But the mantle of feathery tendrils trailing from the back of the bird are always visible during the mating season. The marked display of the breeding plumage here, including the feathers on the neck standing out from their normal smooth appearance, seems to be a state of display which the bird can produce at will, as shown here.
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This bird was feeding very successfully. A small light brown flattish fish seemed to be on the menu in this location. The egret would walk slowly through the shallows looking down at the water very attentively. Then it would freeze, the neck would slowly extend but with a marked kink, from which position it would wait for target prey to be exactly in the cross hairs at which point it would fire the beak into the water at high speed to seize the fish. There were very few misses with this hunting technique.
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Success! (again).  They were only hors d’oeuvre sized snacks, but as anyone who has starved at an event offering that inevitably inadequate substitute for a proper dinner of drinks and finger food knows, if you eat enough of them…..
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There are a number of species of egret. But only the great egret has this wonderfully extendable long neck. The breeding plumage is at rest here, just hanging from the bird’s back like an ornamental cloak.
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That’s a lot of neck to manage in flight, and indeed at other times. It also presents a daunting task for any fish who survives being plucked from the water and swallowed, and who has plans for a last ditch fight back up the neck to freedom. I saw zero escapes of this nature.
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Not a lot of moving parts on this face for expressive looks. Perhaps this one look simply has to fit all situations, and hence, not being equipped with a smile or language, the need for breeding plumage to attract attention and to remind any who need reminding that ’tis the season for perpetuating the species.

The next five photos are a sequence showing the bird doing a hover-like vertical takeoff. It took some creative and very energetic wing movements before it was safely airborne, with the landing gear retracted, and the head in a streamlined position directly in front of the body.

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Standing tall, and looking directly at me.

Two photo sequence of the very effective feeding routine.

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The egret is so effortlessly elegant.

Three photo sequence below. This bird just kept striking beautiful poses. The lush banks of bullrushes and the foliage behind them provided protection from the wind. Good for egret fishing, and for photos.

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The sun was setting when this was taken. The three ducks had obviously given it all away for the day. But even as I left and glanced back, the egret was still strolling around, feeding pretty much at will. Perhaps the ducks with their blunt rounded beaks, their short necks, their flat feet and stumpy little legs just accepted that they were outclassed in the conditions on the day at this location by the superbly adapted and equipped eastern great egret.

Four image sequence of the egret feeding on edge of the water near the mud flats. Beyond the mud flats was the banks were crowded with lush green foliage, visible in these photos only as reflections in the water.

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A most enjoyable hour.



When not being the star of the sunset feeding rituals performance as shown above, this egret lives just  a few hundred metres upstream, on a quiet corner of the Barham River away from the public and paparazzi (well, most of them anyway). The extras also retreat to this spot.

4 thoughts on “An Hour with an Egret

  1. Fabulous series of shots John.
    So what is it about that breeding plumage that somehow makes him more attractive? I personally think the elegant pure white unruffled plumage is far more attractive, but, hey, I know he is not trying to impress me.
    And that long, long neck must be an invitation to a predator, not that I know who would tackle such a big bird. Wedge tail eagles down that way, so maybe one of them.
    Thanks again John
    Cheers, Richard


    1. Thank you Richard. I agree with your assessment of the breeding feathery outfit when compared with the entirely elegant non-breeding plumage.
      I’ve never heard of a wading bird of this type being attacked by an eagle. I’m pretty sure the eagle has more nutritious unfeathered food on offer in conveniently smaller creatures.


  2. Hi John.

    I enjoyed reading this post again. Thank you referring me back to it. Your luck was in and you maximised your time, both you and subject feeding an urge. I’m interested to know how you identified the bird as male. I am not aided by Menkhorst et al. I put that aside and indulged my imagination of the egret as female, the bridal finery the equal of any garment I’ve seen adorning a woman on the threshold of marriage. “She” was the belle of the ball. But if “she” was a “he”, your later photography, beautifully judged to my eye, evoked Narcissus, a reflection surely more delicious than a flat fish.

    Whoever chose the sobriquet, “Great”, nailed it. Your five shot sequence parades a ballerina, in full command of her body, elegant and confident, perhaps rising in flight slightly disappointed to be performing for an audience of one.

    You must have caught the judges’ eye.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pleased to hear you liked these shots of the egret Hunto. I made the assumption the bird was male because of its size. The adult male egret is slightly larger than the adult female. But I readily accept that there are perils in making such an assumption based on viewing a solitary bird. As you would know, both male and female sport the breeding plumage seasonally.
      At the foot of the text of this post above is a link to an earlier post on the egret which you might find interesting. That post is titled ‘The Eastern Great Egret’. The flying ability of this bird amazes and fascinates me.
      The feathered finery of the eastern great egret in the breeding season is a thing of beauty, as is their balletic movement both on the ground and in the air – what a contrast to the less sophisticated ‘courting’ habits of the male koala!


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