Mystery Egret, Cupsogue, Suffolk Co., New York

On Friday the 4th June 2004 around 6 PM, Kenny Frisch observed a small white egret in the grassy marsh behind the parking field at Cupsogue Beach at the west end of Dune Road, Suffolk Co., New York. Kenny described the egret as having "dark-ish lores, distinctive head plumes, and black bill." Although he did not have a telescope with him, he had a digital camera with him and managed to take some pictures through his binoculars supplemented by the 3x zoom on the camera.

Figure 1.
Unidentified egret, Cupsogue, Suffolk County, New York. 4 June 2004 Photo Copyright © Kenny Frisch

Figure 2.
Unidentified egret, Cupsogue, Suffolk County, New York. 4 June 2004 Photo Copyright © Kenny Frisch

In a follow up e-mail Kenny continues: "First off, the bird was viewed in cloudy conditions if that will affect my description. The leg color and feet looked like a standard snowy egret. Black legs, yellow-ish feet. The face (lores) looked to be gray-blue. The bill was all black.  The first think I noticed about the bird were the head plumes being so distinctive. They were very long and were not touching the head at all (unlike all the snowy egrets I had viewed the past few days in which the plumes were shorter and touching the head). Also the back did not seem to have any plumes going away from it. When the bird took off, the wings were all white."

Several aspects of the description suggest Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) rather than Snowy Egret (Egretta thula). The leg color seems to rule out juvenile Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea), which is white, has blue facial skin, blue base to the bill and may have head plumes. Additional informed comments would be most welcome

Update 8 June 2004: Patrick Santinello went to Cupsogue today hoping to re-locate and photograph Kenny's interesting egret. He found this bird near the 'Mayor's House' in nearby Westhampton Dunes (<1 mile from the previous spot). He managed some shots before the egret was spooked by a person on the shore. Unfortunately he did not get a look at the feet. From the relatively short two-tone bill, I would agree with Patrick that this looks very much like a Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea). The head is quite short (more box-like) and there are hints of blue in the plumage but these are very washed out and possibly not visible from any distance. I don't have much information about color variation in Little Blue Herons, in particular the occurrance of white adults.

Figure 3-5. Unidentified egret, Westhampton Dunes, Suffolk County, New York. 8 June 2004 Photos Copyright © Patrick Santinello

For comparison here are a couple of shots of a breeding-plumage Little Egret (Egretta garzetta garzetta) taken in Italy in mid April 2004. Note the hefty dagger-like bill that is essentially black throughout its length. The facial skin of this bird is purple/blue but does not really extend onto the lower mandible. The twin ornamental plumes (correctly called 'aigrettes') are neat, not shaggy.

Figure 6-7. Little Egret (Egretta garzetta garzetta), Torcello, Venezia, Italy. 16 April 2004 Photos Copyright © Angus Wilson

What about Western Reef Heron (Egretta gularis)? Like Little Blue Heron, this is a species that is better be called an egret than an heron and is in fact very closely allied to Little and Snowy Egret (considered conspecific by some). Western Reef Herons have been recorded at least 13 times in the Caribbean and once on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts (26 April to 13 Sept 1983). There are two color morphs and although less numerous, white morph adults or juveniles (usually blotchy) could present identification problems. However, Reef Herons are bulkier birds that either Snowy or Little Egrets with noticeably shorter legs. Click here to view an white Western Reef Heron photographed on the Llobregat Delta in Spain by Ricard Gutiérrez. [note: When the Spanish bird was re-photographed in September it looked slightly bluer and more Little Blue-like.] Also Floyd Hayes has put together a very interesting page of odd white egrets photographed in Trinidad & Tobago with links to other reference photos. He also discusses the hybrid issue and the complexity therein.

Overall I don't think there is reason to consider Western Reef Heron for the NY bird but it is good to keep an open mind and learn more about the identification of egrets at the same time.

Unfortunately I don't have any pictures of Western Reef Heron but here is an Eastern Reef Heron (Egretta sacra) - dark morph, I'm afraid - taken in Japan. I think this serves to show the really sabre-like bill of the two Reef Herons, which tends to be slightly longer and even deeper based than Little Egret!

Figure 8. Eastern Reef Heron (Egretta sacra), Amami-Oshima, Japan. 18 April 2002 Photos Copyright © Angus Wilson

What about Little Blue x egret hybrid? Candidate Little Blue Heron x Egretta hybrids have been reported on occasion. In 1997, Bill Wimley of Irvine, California posted an interest response to BirdChat discussing possible hybrids.

Although I have no personal experience, I have been told that yellow lores are not within the normal range of variation
of Juvenile Little Blue Herons, and that Yellow-lored individuals are possibly Little Blue X Snowy Egret Hybrids. This reminds me of an individual I saw at Doheny State Park in Dana Point, California (Orange County) in September, 1996: This bird was with a small group of Snowy Egrets (E. thula), hunched over, stirring or raking the mud with one foot, somewhat like the Snowies. The upper surface of the bill was gray at the base and dull black beyond the nostrils. The base of the blackish lower bill was also gray, with maybe a hint of yellow. The base of the bill was wide and flattened compared to the Snowies. The lores were yellow, but duller than the Snowies. The legs were thick, with very thick joints. The legs were very dark green with thin, pointed, black bars along the front. On the back of the legs there is a streak of lighter green (pea green?) that widens down the leg, opening into an entirely pea green foot. The foot was distinctly and abruptly lighter than the dark green legs. The plumage was white, overall, with a slight dusky tinge tothe back. No sign of it molting into the blue plumage of the adult Little Blue Heron. It did not appear to have the scapular plumes that some Snowy Egrets were beginning to show. Other birders reported dark colored underwings but the wingtips appeared entirely white.

This bird seems to me to be a mixture of Snowy Egret and Little Blue Heron characters: The bill is like Little Blue, but the behavior is more like a Snowy Egret, and unlike typical Little Blue behavior. The sharply delineated, bicolored lower legs have exactly the pattern of the Snowy, but the overall greenish coloration and barring of the Little Blue. The legs and joints are very thick like the Little Blue Heron's legs. The lores are dull yellow, somewhat like the bright yellow lores of the Snowy Egret and unlike the bluish of the Little Blue. Stephen Bailey of the Natural History Museum in Pacific Grove told me that acalico-plumaged "Litte Blue" with yellow lores was seen in Alviso, Ca in 1979. This was thought to be a hybrid, although no one knows for sure. I found two pertinent pieces of information:

1) A specimen collected by A. Sprunt in 1954 in Florida was declared to be a Snowy Egret x Little Blue Heron hybrid by the American Museum of Natural History. (Auk, 1954 v. 71 p.131) This bird was very different from the Doheny Heron: It was pied like a molting immature Little Blue, had the Little Blue's bill and bluish lores, but had all black legs and feet, and acted like a Snowy. (Dashing about and stabbing with the bill-no mention of foot stirring). Little Blue Herons are supposedly very methodical hunters, generally, with only occasional foot-raking. The detailed architecture of the plumes were important in the decision that this was a hybrid.

2) "Systematics and Evolutionary Relationships among the Herons" by Robert Payne and Christopher Risley published in 1974. In this book, the authors re-examined the Sprunt specimen and claim (without much discussion) that it is just an "aberrantly colored" Snowy Egret, not a hybrid at all. (In fact they state that there are no unambiguous heron hybrid records). But they also state, based on a cladistic analysis of skeletal characters, that the Snowy Egret and Little Blue Heron are practically each others closest relatives, which makes a hybrid not so unexpected. This is especially true in places like the Alviso rookery in California where a few Little Blue Herons join the Snowies to breed.

Are there known cases of Little Blue X Snowy Egret hybrid?So it seems that the possibility of this particular hybrid depends on the
answers to the following questions: 1) Do Little Blues ever have yellow lores?2) Do Yellow lored individuals occur in the East?(Hybrids may be more likely in California because of the scarcity ofconspecifics for breeding Little Blue Herons) 3) Do Little Blues ever have crisply bicolored legs? 4) Do Snowy Egrets ever have black-barred, dark green legs?

Also take a look at this strange piebald egret was photographed by Willie Sekula and video taped by John and Barbara Ribble at Lake Casa Blanca, Laredo, Texas on February 24, 1999.

Photos Copyright Kenny Frisch© 2004, Patrick Santinello© 2004 and Angus Wilson© 2004.
Page Layout Copyright Angus Wilson© 2004 All rights reserved.
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