Birds Portrait in Red and White

Plume hunters once nearly eliminated reddish egrets in Florida. Now this eccentric bird, our rarest wader, may be coming back.

by Frank Graham Jr. photo by Arthur Morris

As a seasoned observer of behavior, human and otherwise, I have seen monkeys, lions, and sharks, as well as small fry of my own species, go ballistic at feeding time. The frenzy is sometimes eye-popping. But be assured that a single reddish egret stirring up fish in a shallow shoreline pool can be a match for the most rampageous among them. n This frenetic wader is the rarest of North American herons and egrets. But as I suspected when I first saw one in action years ago in a Texas salt marsh, the reddish egret is a survivor. The stately demeanor of a great egret, the careful stalking of the shallows characteristic of a great blue heron--they weren't for this bird. While I watched, it rushed one way and then another, made a feint to the right, suddenly darted three or four giant steps to the left, stopped, leaped, whirled partway around, and lurched off in still another direction. All the while it held its wings overhead, sometimes like twin dark parasols, sometimes flapping them wildly. 

This egret could have been impersonating a tipsy sailor in pursuit of a wind-driven hat. Yet biologists detect method in its behavior: The bird was simply loping across the flats to find a school of minnows, then appearing to go berserk as it chased the scattering fish. 

The reddish egret's survival is as noteworthy as its table manners and the variety of its plumage. Its population crashed in the first third of the 20th century, enjoyed a resurgence of sorts under protection from the plume trade and pothunters, and now faces an uncertain future. Yet I have found that many casual birdwatchers aren't even aware of its existence.

"The total population of reddish egrets in the United States is probably 2,000 pairs," says Richard T. Paul, manager of the National Audubon Society's Coastal Island sanctuaries around Florida's Tampa Bay. (I was in Texas with Paul when I first witnessed the bird's flamboyant feeding.) "That's a rough estimate. Numbers appear to be roughly stable in Texas over the past 25 years, with about 1,500 nesting pairs. Over the same period they've increased in Florida to about 400 pairs"--from a 1977 low of perhaps 150 pairs.

Guesstimate or not, no one is going to come up with better figures very soon. A careful field biologist who sees a happy significance in the set of initials he shares with Roger Tory Peterson, Paul still keeps track of his beloved "shredded egrets."  They are birds worth worrying about.

None of our continent's other herons and egrets have such a limited geographical range or specialized ecological niche. A sketch of the reddish egret's breeding range includes parts of the western Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, from the shores and offshore islands of Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula to Texas, Louisiana, and southern Florida, and south again to the Greater Antilles. A small number breed on the coasts of Colombia and Venezuela, and there are a few breeders on Florida's Atlantic coast as far north as Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, near Cape Canaveral. And there's a distinct population on Mexico's west coast. All told, the world total may not exceed 3,000 nesting pairs.

The ornithologist John Ogden describes a wading bird's habitat as "about equal parts humidity, mud, mangrove roots, and mosquitoes." In the reddish egret's case, add a pinch of salt, for it seldom ranges far from coastal bays and lagoons where fresh water meets the warm seas.

Like the snow goose, whose plumage may be either white or bluish-gray, the reddish egret comes in two color morphs. Most of the individuals seen in the United States are of the so-called reddish variety, which has a covering of shaggy, rusty-brown lanceolate feathers on the head and neck contrasting with a gray body tapering into the finery of the nuptial plumes. In courtship those shaggy feathers, according to the ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent, "stand out like the quills of a porcupine, giving the bird quite a formidable appearance, terrifying to its enemies perhaps, but probably pleasing to its mate." 

The other color morph is almost pure white. In the southern United States, these "whites" may make up 5 to 10 percent of the population, though that portion can be as high as 15 to 20 percent in scattered places in Texas and Florida. Neither morph is truly spectacular until the breeding season, when the birds take on high color: bright blue legs; a jet-black tip on a four-inch bill that, partway to the head, abruptly bursts into shocking pink; and violet-blue skin around the eyes. 

Reddish and white morphs readily mate, and the mix of offspring is guaranteed to warm a geneticist's heart. Even two reddish parents may occasionally find a white chick in their nest, but two whites never make a reddish one. This caused confusion among early ornithologists, and for years many of them, believing the whites to be a separate species, named them Peale's egrets. John James Audubon thought the white morph was simply the immature stage of the reddish egret. "According to old sources, whites used to predominate in south Florida," Paul notes, "while the dark phase was dominant in Florida Bay." 

Then the shooting began. Audubon himself, on a visit to Florida Bay in 1832, thought reddish egrets were easy to kill, and to prove it he shot 12 in less than half an hour. About 50 years later the ornithologist W.E.D. Scott inspected a Florida colony destroyed by plume hunters, where reddish egrets made up the majority of a pile of 200 wading birds lying dead beneath their nests, strips of skin carrying the breeding plumes peeled from their backs. Flocks of crows and vultures were smashing and eating the dead birds' eggs. At another colony, in Tampa Bay, the desolation was oppressive. "Formerly I had seen birds breeding here in great numbers, and reddish egrets had been the most conspicuous feature of these breeding grounds in those days," Scott wrote. "But now how different! Not a single pair of birds of any kind did I find nesting, and only at rare intervals were any kind[s] of herons to be observed. . . . Not a reddish egret and only a few frightened and wary Louisiana herons were seen, and these were not breeding."

Reddish egrets had almost disappeared from Florida by 1910. Birds of America, a major work edited by the Audubon Society leader T. Gilbert Pearson, included contributions from prominent ornithologists, and in 1917, when it appeared, it described a thousand native species and subspecies. Reddish egrets didn't rate a mention. So it was a revelation when Pearson found two large nesting colonies of the birds on two large islands off the Texas coast in 1918 and 1920. Still, there were no accepted reports of the species in Florida between 1927 and 1937. Populations of the other herons and egrets, which had also fallen victim to plume hunters, rebounded fairly quickly under the protection of state laws and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, but reddish egrets lagged badly.

"That's not a mystery," says Paul. "Snowy egrets, great egrets, and most of the other waders bred deep in the interior as well as near the coast, and the plume hunters didn't find all the colonies. But coastal waters were the highways of the day. Both reddish egrets and roseate spoonbills fed and nested along the coast, and their colonies were always vulnerable."

Alexander Sprunt Jr., director of Audubon's southern sanctuaries during the 1930s, reported that even after plume hunting had ceased to be a threat, locals in the Florida Keys continued shooting those two species for the pot. But decade by decade, as old hunting traditions changed, both fared better, and by the late 1970s, perhaps 125 pairs of reddish egrets nested in Florida Bay.

The bulk of the U.S. population of reddish egrets, however, is concentrated farther west. "The coast of Texas, with its long string of bays and inland shallow waters dotted with many low marshy islands, is well suited to this maritime species," Bent wrote of the reddish egret in 1926. But Texas hasn't always been a refuge for the species. As elsewhere, residential and industrial development, dredging, and the intrusion of motorboats have damaged critical habitat. (Ironically, some of the "spoil" created by dredging now provides nesting islands.) Pesticide runoff may have affected the birds, as well as predation of their nests by raccoons, coyotes, and great-tailed grackles. Nearly 70 years ago Sprunt noted the latter as predators and suggested that the Audubon Society supply wardens with silencers to shoot grackles without disturbing the egrets. "Silencers are not on the market to the ordinary buyer but should be procurable through the right channels," he noted in a report to the New York office. "Gangsters have no trouble in getting them!" 

Paul points out that there are no "wilderness reservoirs" for the ecologically restricted reddish egrets. During his own surveys, he has been constantly frustrated by photographers, sport fishermen, picnickers, jetskiers, and ecotourists wading from their boats onto the nesting islands and preventing the egrets from sheltering their young against the hot sun. "These people simply aren't aware, or don't care, that their presence is enough to cause the death of eggs or nestlings," he says. "We need to find new ways to educate people about the impacts of their activities, but we never seem to gain on the problem because there are so many people coming to the coast." 

Paul's current estimate of 1,500 nesting pairs on the Texas coast puts a bright face on matters. But to the east, Louisiana's population (never well known) may have dropped to as low as 50 pairs. Still, Paul has even stronger reasons for his serious concern about Florida Bay and the Keys.

"Although no one has really counted egrets there for a long time, I thought the killifish and other small prey they feed on were tough enough to withstand the increasing salinity that has occurred as drainage projects have diverted fresh water," he says.  "But recent work suggests something different."

Jerry Lorenz, an Audubon research biologist, studies roseate spoonbills and their food fish in Florida Bay and the Keys. His disheartening findings include evidence that populations of spoonbills, which feed in areas similar to those where reddish egrets feed, have plunged in the area from a high of 1,250 pairs in 197879 to between 500 and 700 pairs today. 

"Spoonbills feed in the northern part of Florida Bay, where fresh water used to trickle in from the Everglades to brackish areas and help sustain large populations of small fish," Lorenz says. "But since 1983 water has been pumped out of the Everglades during the wet season into the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay to the east. As salinity increases in this part of Florida Bay, the fish fare poorly, and spoonbills--perhaps reddish egrets, too--go hungry. Water flow is something we can fix, if we have the will."

Lorenz believes that egrets from Florida Bay are swelling the population in Paul's sanctuaries around Tampa Bay. Paul does not agree, but there's no doubt that there, in the shadow of a great industrial complex, spoonbills and reddish egrets seem to be holding their own, and perhaps increasing. In 1999 Paul estimated that 57 pairs of reddish egrets were nesting on islands in Tampa Bay and nearby Clearwater Harbor. In addition, Paul points to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, on the Atlantic coast of Florida, as a bright spot in the picture.

"We counted 112 young reddish egrets there in 1999, which suggests a rapid increase in recent years, to maybe 75 nesting pairs," Paul reports. "There are still good foraging flats around Merritt Island, unlike many other coastal areas that have been dredged and filled. I'm hopeful about Florida Bay and the Keys, but if reddish egrets are going to increase further anywhere in Florida, I think they have the best chance around Merritt Island." 

Frank Graham Jr. is a longtime field editor for Audubon.

© 2000  NASI

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