Bird Species Spotlight: Reddish Egret

by Jake Jacoby | October 30, 2021

© Jake JacobyThe Reddish Egret is a medium to large Heron that usually forages in shallow salt water. They are very active foragers, often seen running through shallows with long strides, staggering sideways, leaping in the air, raising one or both wings, and abruptly stabbing at fish. Some people consider this to be clown-like behavior, but I consider the Reddish Egret to not only be a consummate fisherman, but a wonderful bird to observe and photograph.

Reddish Egret © Jake Jacoby

Reddish Egret

The Reddish Egret is notable for its two color morphs – either dark or white. They remain dark or white for their life, beginning with the downy stage in the nest. Mated pairs may be of the same or different color morphs, and broods of young may include either or both morphs. Dark morphs are much more numerous than the white ones and comprise about 80-percent of the population.

Reddish Egret – White Morph in flight © Jake Jacoby

Reddish Egret – White Morph in flight

The Reddish Egret stands about 2.5 feet tall and has a wingspan of about 4 feet. They have a blue-gray body and wings with a reddish neck and head. Adults in breeding plumage have long plumes on their heads and necks. They have long blue legs and a pointed salmon-pink bill with a black tip. They usually hold their neck in an “S” shape both when they are in flight and when they are at rest.

The Reddish Egret can be found in the Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana and in the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of southern Florida. The Reddish Egret is also found in Mexico, the Caribbean, the coast of northern South America and the West Indies.

The Reddish Egret is normally found in areas with salty or brackish water like coastal tidal flats, salt marshes and lagoons. I took all of the photographs in this article in the salt water lagoons and tidal flats at Fort DeSoto County Park at the southern tip of Pinellas County.

When the Reddish Egret hunts for food, it races back and forth in the shallow water, often spreading its wings wide and flapping them. The author Pete Dunne nicknamed the reddish egret “the Tyrannosaurus Rex of the Flats”. It primarily eats smaller fish like minnows, mullet, and killifish, but will also consume frogs and crustaceans. They stalk their prey visually in the shallow waters, sometimes curving their wings forward around their body to make a canopy that casts shade on the water. This canopy reduces glare on the water and when prey swims towards the shady spot for protection, it quickly snatches them up. After feeding, they regurgitate all the inedible parts of their prey, such as bones.

Reddish Egret curving its wings © Jake Jacoby

Reddish Egret curving its wings

The Reddish Egret nests in colonies, usually in tropical swamps. These colonies are usually located on coastal islands. Courtship is a noisy affair with much head-shaking and bill clacking, chases and circle flights The female lays 3 or 4, pale blue-green eggs in a platform of sticks placed in mangroves or low bushes or sometimes even on the ground. Dark birds may have white chicks but white birds never have dark chicks. The chicks hatch in approximately 25 days and fledge when they are about 45 days old. Both the male and the female build the nest, incubate the eggs and care for the young. Both parents feed the chicks by regurgitating food directly into their beaks. The chicks will not reach reproductive maturity until they are about three to four years old.

In Florida, two-thirds of the Reddish Egret population occurs in Florida Bay and the Lower Keys on mangrove islands far enough offshore to protect the young from both animal predators like raccoons, and humans.

Juvenile Reddish Egret in flight © Jake Jacoby

Juvenile Reddish Egret in flight

Like its relatives, the Snowy Egret and the Great Egret, the Reddish Egret was once hunted mercilessly for its plumage in the late 1800s and early 1900s and its numbers decreased dramatically. It is now protected and its numbers have increased and number approximately 2,000 pairs in the U.S. The Reddish Egret is still under threat by the degradation and destruction of its preferred coastal habitat and is now classified as “Near Threatened”.

Reddish Egret Courtship © Jake Jacoby

Reddish Egret Courtship

About the Author

To see more of Jake's work as well as his favorite photographs check out his Flickr page.

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