Dancing White Morphs

Dancing White Morphs

Reddish Egrets are different from the other egrets and herons in several ways. First, they are classified as 'threatened' by Texas Parks and Wildlife as there are only 1,500 to 2,000 nesting pairs in the US - and most are in Texas. Not sure why there are so few; the feather hat phase was long ago, but this article states it is because it "occupies a restricted habitat and is patchily distributed. For this reason it is assumed to have a moderately small and declining global population". They are found in tidal and brackish wetlands, but I did see a lot in the waves around Corpus Christi.

They are the most active herons, none of that standing around and staring at the water until something moves. These birds feed on small fish, crustaceans, frogs and insects. Reddish Egrets run around, frantically stalking prey , abruptly changing directions and often using their wings to shadow the shallow water. Fun to watch but challenging to photograph.  

And to add to the mix, there are two color morphs. The dark morph is slate blue with a reddish head and neck. The light morph is completely white. These are not temporary, developmental or seasonal differences but two completely different plumages. They will interbreed.

At a distance you might mistake a white morph for a Snowy Egret, but you will know by the frantic behavior that it is a Reddish Egret.

Reddish Egret White Morph just standing still. Maybe he is resting. Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1600 sec. f/7.1 ISO 400

Reddish Egret White Morph just standing still. Maybe he is resting.

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1600 sec. f/7.1 ISO 400

Recently I found a white one hanging around the mud flats near Surfside and Bryan Beach. Only 5-12% of the population in Texas is white, so this was a real treat. He just stood there. I got my milk crate to sit on and setup the tripod. And waited.

He started walking rapidly back and forth in front of me. I was trying to get his rhythm down when he found a small fish.

White morph Reddish Egret with small fish Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/4000 sec. f/7.0 ISO 400

White morph Reddish Egret with small fish

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/4000 sec. f/7.0 ISO 400

He ate that, stood around a bit and then flew off. Dang.

But.... he came back after a short while and started hunting in earnest.

White morph Reddish Egret channeling an angel Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/3200 sec. f/7.0 ISO 400

White morph Reddish Egret channeling an angel

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/3200 sec. f/7.0 ISO 400

He (or she, these birds are not sexually dimorphic) began to shadow the water looking for prey. It is thought the behavior lessens the glare on the water, or perhaps the fish will swim to a shaded part. In any event, he was quite successful at finding small, silvery fish. And I had a great time sitting there near the shore as after a while he seemed to ignore me.

And, it doesn't get any better than that.

It was bright overcast and the bird was cooperative.  I took 475 photos that afternoon.

And more shadowing... Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/3200 sec. f/7.0 ISO 400

And more shadowing...

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/3200 sec. f/7.0 ISO 400

These guys can turn on a dime. He was darting here and there, in and out of focus. 

And I found this interesting fact as I did my research (I hate that the author used 'phase' instead of morph; it sounds temporary and it is not):

Two dark phase birds can have white phase chicks, but two white phase birds can never have dark phase chicks. When a dark phase bird and a white phase bird mate, their chicks are almost always dark phase. The white phase of the reddish egret was once thought to be a completely different species. In Texas, only 10 to 20 percent of the reddish egret population is white phase. In the 1950s, just four percent of the whole United States' population was white phase.

Hmm. The numbers for the white population according to this source are different, but it is only an educated guess. Suffice to say the white morph is a much smaller percentage than the dark but has grown over time.

More frantic hunting... Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/3200 sec. f/7.0 ISO 400

More frantic hunting...

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/3200 sec. f/7.0 ISO 400

He found plenty to eat that day but most were small fish; nothing dramatic like spearing a big prey. I am constantly amazed at the effort they expend to keep themselves well fed. 

Elegant pose made more interesting by post-processing Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/3200 sec. f/7.0 ISO 400

Elegant pose made more interesting by post-processing

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/3200 sec. f/7.0 ISO 400

Some of the poses were amazing. He looked like a dancer! I couldn't help but use Fractalius, Topaz Simplify and Photoshop Oil Paint to make art.

He knew how to make an exit! Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/3200 sec. f/7.0 ISO 400

He knew how to make an exit!

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/3200 sec. f/7.0 ISO 400

And then he left.

You may wonder about taking so many photos of the same bird, doing practically the same thing over and over. Well, each image is a bit different, but if the light is right and the bird is cooperative, then you can't pass up the opportunity. And there is always the chance the bird will surprise you.

These were taken in late August, and a recent trip to the same area proved to be bereft of birds. The rain we have been having, welcome as it is, has filled the marshes and ponds, the birds have many more places to seek their prey out of sight of avid birders and photographers.

Have you ever seen a bird dance like he was drunk? Do you think you could tell the difference between a white morph Reddish Egret and a Snowy? Let me know in the comments below.

Update: The comments are not working from IE 11 and possibly other browsers. If you are able to post a comment, please let me know what browser (or mobile platform) you are using. Commenting works in Chrome, but not in IE 11 from my own testing. Sorry, I have turned in a ticket but you know how the help is these days.

Orangeness

Orangeness

No Barrier to Imagination

No Barrier to Imagination