Sep 16 2013

Little Blues

Published by at 7:10 am under Water and Shore

Little blue heron (photo by Shawn Collins)

Just when you thought you’d mastered white wading birds, a wildcard shows up!

It’s the time of year for white little blue herons.  I was reminded of this when I visited Scarborough Marsh last week and encountered great egrets, snowy egrets and little blue herons, all of which were white.  Great and snowy egrets are always white, but little blues are blue … except when they’re young.

Little blue herons (Egretta caerulea) don’t breed in western Pennsylvania but juvenile birds disperse widely — they even fly north! — so it’s possible to find them outside their normal range in August and September.  Because they’re very rare in Pittsburgh I was surprised to find three at Scarborough Marsh but I should have checked the range map.  They breed in southern Maine.

With so many white wading birds how did I figure them out?  Beaks and legs!

  • Great egret:  yellow beak, black legs.  Large.
  • Snowy egret:  black beak with yellow face, black legs with yellow feet
  • Cattle egret:  yellow beak and dull yellow or dark legs. Small with short, chunky neck.
  • Immature little blue heron:  gray beak (tipped in black), yellow legs.
  • Not in Maine and Pennsylvania: the white morph of the Reddish egret: pink-and-black beak and dark legs (see photo at end).

First row of photos: Great egret + Snowy egret.
Second row: Cattle egret + immature Little blue heron.
Comparison of great egret and snowy egret (photos by Shawn Collins)

Comparison of catlle egret and little blue heron (photos by Shawn Collins)

Only the snowy egret has a black beak.   (Notice his fancy yellow feet).

The little blue is the only one with a gray beak(*), a hint that he’ll turn blue.  We won’t see him do this in western Pennsylvania because the juveniles fly south before winter.

When he’s halfway blue he’ll look very motley and match the marsh, like this one Shawn found in Texas.

Immature little blue heron with mottled blue and white (photo by Shawn Collins)

 

When he grows up you’ll never mistake him for an egret.

Little blue heron adult (photo by Shawn Collins)

He’ll be a little blue. ;)

 

(all photos by Shawn Collins)

p.s. (*) Jim Valimont points out that along the southern, Gulf, Caribbean and Pacific coasts the white morph of the Reddish Egret adds to the confusion.  Its beak resembles the immature little blue heron’s except that it’s two-tone pink and black.  It’s not found in Maine and Pennsylvania.

p.p.s  Steve Gosser contributed this photo of a white-morph reddish egret. Compare it to the first photo at top. Confusing? Yes!  But his legs are black and he only visits saltwater.
Reddish egret, white morph (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Little Blues”

  1. Jim Valimonton 16 Sep 2013 at 12:09 pm

    What about white morph of the Reddish Egret? Great photos!

  2. Kate St. Johnon 16 Sep 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Jim, you’re right about the white Reddish egret. Very confusing in Florida! And I thought of the famous “Hegret” (half greater-blue heron and half great egret) but once I got going I decided to limit my selection to birds found in Maine and Pennsylvania. (I was also limited by available pictures.)

  3. emilyon 16 Sep 2013 at 2:43 pm

    I have always remembered that the snowy egret has “golden slippers”.

  4. Steve Gosseron 17 Sep 2013 at 12:21 pm

    I have a picture of a Reddish Egret White Morph here – http://home.comcast.net/~sgosser/ReddishEgretWM.jpg

  5. Kate St. Johnon 17 Sep 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Thanks to Jim & Steve, I have updated the blog to include the white morph of the reddish egret. See the p.s. section and the last photo.

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