In early spring, we look forward to being entertained by the Great Egret during mating season. No need to reserve tickets – we just show up and wait. The rookery is located at the edge of the mangrove swamp beyond the La Peñita RV Park.
At sunrise, we walked to the egret colony, about a two-kilometer hike, and staked out the area closest to the nesting site. We are never disappointed by the spectacular display, and we have front-row seats. Mind you, the first time we go there, we have to blaze a trail through five foot high grass, and untangle ourselves from the acacia branches and prickly vines that poke and scratch. Once the path has been established, it’s smooth sailing. As we neared the water’s edge, we tested the footing on the tangled mangrove roots, to make sure it’s not been undermined. Wouldn’t want to step on a croc! Last week, as I moved in for that perfect shot, I surprised a crocodile about ten feet long not more than five feet in front of me. He slid off the sand bar into the water with a big splash. Sorry no photo as I didn’t regain my composure quickly enough to focus the camera.
The mangrove swamp, characterized by shallow water overlying waterlogged soil has its own micro-climate – picture us standing in the direct sun for several hours, in five foot high wet grass on interspersed submerged and emergent vegetation and tangled mangrove roots, with about 90% humidity trying to be as still as possible. Our glasses steam up making it hard to focus the camera. Our neck, arm and leg muscles rebel but we soldier on. Maybe it’s because we use insect repellent, thankfully we have never been bothered by mosquitoes or other insects – a good thing because Ken hates mosquitoes.
The elegant Great Egret (also known as the Common Egret and Great White Heron) is a dazzling sight during mating season. Both males and females grow long, lacy, delicate and flowing plumes (aigrettes) on the back that curl over the tail. These display plumes molt out after the fall. The Great Egret is not normally a vocal bird, but in breeding colonies, however, it often gives a loud croaking cuk, cuk, cuk.
Great Egrets are of breeding age when they are about two years old. In breeding season the featherless skin between the bill and the eyes turn from yellow to lime green, and the top of the upper bill turns dark. After the eggs have been laid, the colour of the lores change back to yellow, but the dark marking on the bill remains throughout the breeding season.
Typically, the males arrive in the breeding area before the females. It is their responsibility to choose the nesting site and get started on the nest construction before even selecting a mate. Then both members of the pair may collaborate to complete the nest, though the male sometimes finishes it himself. The nest is up to three feet across and one foot deep. It is lined with pliable plant material that dries to form a cup-like structure.
Once they have have settled on a location, and the nest has been completed, males will usually start displaying for the females.
As part of the courtship dance, the male performs movements that can be described as “Stretch,” “Wing Preen,” “Snap,” and “Twig Shake.” Interested females gather on branches around the male to watch the display. Some females will perform a ritualized “Circle Flight;” and they may chase other females away. Great Egrets are seasonally monogamous, and may re-unite with mates of previous years.
Great Egrets often breed in large, mixed-species colonies as the increased surveillance capacity facilitates detection of predators.
This year’s colony included Cattle Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Boat-billed Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons, Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Green Herons, Ibises, Anhingas and Neotropic Cormorants. Many smaller birds such as Great Kiskadees, Kingfishers and Great-tailed Grackles shared the branches and created background music. We even spotted a Common Gallinule.
This was the first year we observed the Cattle Egrets in breeding season. These usually boring egrets, foraging for insects around cattle, took on a whole new look as they strutted their stuff. During breeding season, they develop orange-buff plumes on the back, breast and crown of the head. In high breeding, the eyes are reddish and the space between the eyes and the bill (lores) are reddish purple. They did their best to steal the show!
The Snowy Egret has a yellow bill, black legs and yellow feet. During the breeding season, adults are adorned with long, delicate plumes on their heads, necks, and backs making for a “shaggy” effect. Their yellow feet and lore (the bare skin between the eyes and bill) become redder.
There were always at least several dozen Black-crowned Night Herons in the mangroves. A smaller number of Boat-billed Herons arrived, the clapping sound of their large beaks announcing their whereabouts on the mangrove branches. They stay in the shadows as the bright light hurts their huge eyes. Before they retreated into the deeper shadows, we were able to get some pretty good photos. We watched as they dozed, their large bills tucked in on their vest-like chests.
We regret we will not be here long enough to finish this story, and photograph the eggs and chicks. One day, we’ll have to plan to be here for the fledging of the egrets (not to mention mango season) – if we can endure the heat and humidity.
by Ken & Bea Rauch
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