ID Challenge: Cattle Egret vs. Great Egret vs. Snowy Egret

Cattle Egret in breeding plumage. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Ah, the egret. One of the most majestic and graceful of birds. Fashionistas of the past agreed: thousands of egrets were slaughtered for their long, silky plumes, which used to adorn ladies’ hats.

There are 3 egret species that regularly visit Colorado: the Cattle Egret, the Great Egret, and the Snowy Egret. All 3 are only found in Colorado in the breeding season and are generally white birds. So how’s a birder supposed to know which one they’re looking at?

Size comparison between the Great Egret (left) and the Snowy Egret. Photo by Jamie Simo.

One way is to look at where the bird is. Is it wading in ankle-deep water in a marsh or is it poking around in a (perhaps wet) pasture or agricultural field? If it’s in a field, sometimes surrounded by cows, you’re almost certainly looking at a Cattle Egret. Cattle Egrets, which somehow became established in North America in the 1950’s, are shorter and stockier than our native egrets with either dark legs in non-breeding plumage or orange legs in breeding plumage, and thick, orange beaks. In breeding season, their plumes are a rusty color on their crowns, backs, and breasts that immediately give them away. Neither the Snowy nor the Great Egret have colorful

Snowy Egret in breeding plumage. Note the plumes on the chest. Photo by Jamie Simo.

plumes.

The next biggest egret in Colorado is the Snowy Egret. Next to the Cattle Egret, the Snowy is taller and more slender with a longer, more pointed bill. As mentioned, the Snowy Egret has white plumes so it’s more difficult to tell it apart from the Great Egret than the Cattle Egret.

The Great Egret is about twice the size of the Snowy Egret, towering over the smaller bird. It’s roughly the same size as a Great Blue Heron. It can be hard to judge size if you are only looking at a single bird, however. The Snowy Egret has black legs with yellow feet, while the Great Egret has both black legs and feet, but if the bird’s feet are submerged in water, that’s not a helpful characteristic either.

Great Egret. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The best way to distinguish between the two birds then, is by bill color. The Snowy Egret has a black bill with a yellow patch of skin on its face while the Great Egret has an orange bill with a yellow patch of skin on its face that turns a bright green in the breeding season.

So head to your nearest wetland or cow pasture and look for some egrets to test out your newfound ID skills. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed by these birds.

Flying the Coop

Black-capped Chickadee parent with food for its chicks. Photo by Jamie Simo.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted because I’ve been so busy lately! On either May 22nd or early May 23rd, the Black-capped Chickadees in my nest box fledged. There were either 2 or 3 nestlings based on my observations on May 22nd.

On the 22nd, I watched both parents feed at the entry hole every 5 minutes or so and often fly off with fecal packets. Between parental visits, one nestling, noticeable as a nestling by its fleshy gape, kept sticking its head out of the hole of the nest box and looking around as if it was ready to jump out at any minute.

Black-capped Chickadee nestlings in nest box very close to fledging. Photo by Jamie Simo.

When I checked the next morning, the birds were gone. Next year I’ll try and rig up the nest box camera to see if I can’t capture the whole show. Since the box I’m using is pretty small, I may need to develop a false roof to attach the camera.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spotlight on Parks: Jackson Lake State Park

American White Pelican soaring over Jackson reservoir. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Jackson Reservoir, for which Jackson Lake State Park was named, was created over 100 years ago in 1901 and 1902 to serve as a place to store water for irrigation. The lake sits in the middle of farm country out on the plains. It wasn’t until 1965 that Jackson Lake was designated a Colorado State Park. Now, in addition to providing a thirsty area with water, it serves as a draw for boaters, waterskiers, swimmers, and birders. The lake is regularly stocked for fishermen with species such as rainbow trout, large and small-mouth bass, and walleye.

Jackson Lake comes alive in the spring. In addition to the aforementioned human users, the park is an oasis for shorebirds and waterfowl as well as a draw for songbirds. My last trip, though early in the season, was filled with birdsong. I primarily saw and heard American Robins, but the highlight was the mass of Cedar Waxwings giving off their shrill whistles among the Russian olive. Impossible to glimpse, but with their outsize voices on full display, western chorus frogs were also trilling in low-lying swampy areas beside the beach.

A flock of Cedar Waxwings at Jackson Lake State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Jackson Lake boasts 260 campsites and 3,303 acres for recreation. In addition to watersports, there is an off-road vehicle track for dirt bikes and atvs, a volleyball court, and several trails for hiking. The park even maintains a couple of geocaches.

Admission to the park is $7 a day or $70 for an annual parks pass that admits you to all Colorado State Parks for the year. Senior Aspen Leaf annual passes are $60 if you are 64 or over. Information on camping costs and facility or vehicle rental (jet skis, boats) fees are available on the park website.

When I went, the park wasn’t very busy, but I suspect now that the weather is warm and school is nearly out, that’ll change so you may want to visit sooner rather than later!