Great Egret (Ardea alba)
By Joni James
Great egret. With its head tucked and legs extended behind, you could easily confuse a flying great egret with a great blue heron. But– this winged angel is pure white with yellowish-orange bill and black legs. They hunt like herons by standing immobile or wading to capture fish and other amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals with their dagger-like bill. In the breeding season an area of skin on the face turns a brilliant green and long aigrettes or plumes (long feathers) grow from its back. These feathers are raised and used during courtship displays between the male and female.
During the breeding season, great egrets form monogamous pairs although it is unknown whether this bond continues through succeeding years. They are colonial nesters which means they place their stick nests high in trees (up to 100 ft.) in or near water with the nests of many other colonial nesting birds—their version of an apartment building. One to six pale greenish blue eggs are laid and will incubate in 23-27 days. Nestling phase lasts 21-25 days until they fledge.
Great egret nests in Indiana are not common or numerous. Nesting colonies have been found and monitored since 2009 on the Lake Michigan lakeshore. The great egret is state listed* and the colony is monitored for any changes in abundance. Breeding evidence was noted recently in Greene, Porter, and Vigo counties during the Summer Bird Count in 2017.
Birding for great egrets becomes exciting in late summer/early fall. As the asters and goldenrod bloom and summer begins to move into autumn, egrets move about widely to their wintering grounds. There is a northward dispersal of juveniles from June to October which peaks in August and September.
This dispersal and movement towards wintering grounds can result in large numbers of egrets foraging and roosting at night in wetlands during September and October (Goose Pond FWA is often a great location). I have been fortunate to witness some impressive roosts from my home in Morgan County.
As an example, 2016 was a great flight year at my home and for many evenings I watched large numbers of great egrets fly into the “lake” (a large shallow pond) to roost in the dead willows. From August through the latter part of October the numbers were in the hundreds with a high count on September 10th of 201 egrets. It was a moving sight to watch flight after flight of these gorgeous birds drop over the treetops and drift into the willows. Check out local wetlands and locations on the Indiana Birding Trail. https://indianabirdingtrail.com/
(*State Special Concern: Any animal species requiring monitoring because of known/suspected limited abundance or distribution or because of a recent change in legal status or required habitat).