Saturday, June 14, 2008

Delaware Little Egret - not - June 14th

Emboldened by my successful run for the Prime Hook Wood Sandpiper a few weeks back I made a trip to familiar territory of the Bombay Hook NWR near Smyrna, DE in search of the reported Little Egret. I'd seen a few Little Egrets at my old UK childhood birding patch in January (much to my surprise), but I'd never seen one in the USA.

Little Egret looks a lot like a white Western Reef-Heron, and in fact one may be a subspecies of the other - the taxonomy is in flux. The most pressing problem is telling it from Snowy Egret, with which it shares similar overall size, black legs with yellow feet, and of course an overwhelming whiteness. Telling Little Egret from Snowy is not an issue in the UK. However here in the USA more subtle clues are needed. For one thing Little Egret has a rather thicker and longer bill - it presents as heavier than the Snowy's. The other thing, and something shown by the Delaware bird, is the presence of two thick plumes on the back of the head in contrast to the wispier plumes of the Snowy Egret. A recent post on BIRDWG01 by Alvaro Jaramillo also mentioned that the breast plumes were thicker and coarser in Little Egret. Of much less use, in general, are the bare parts since Little Egret can show yellow lores and the feet have a variable color too. In the case of this specific individual the Little Egret's lores were dull blue-gray so this was another ID mark for this bird, although perhaps not for the species in general.

Getting to Bombay Hook around 8am the tide was high, which I figured would push the small egrets into the pools. Barn Swallows and Purple Martins were at the visitor center. The first pool contained a decent number of Great Egrets, showing just how variable the size of a Great Egret can look when you're looking for small white herons. There were one or two Great Blue Herons as well. In the second pool, Shearness, there were quite a few of both those heron species, Black-necked Stilt and some nervous Killdeer. At the far end of the pool there were a couple of Snowy Egrets. Then onto Bear Swamp pool where there were almost no herons at all. I alternated between Shearness and Bear Swamp while I was there, because this is where the bird was seen. After 3 hours of covering the 3 pools at the reserve, and I wasn't the only one doing this, I gave up and came home. I've seen no sightings of the Little Egret from the past weekend, either.

Nice sightings while I was there were a couple of in-flight Clapper Rails, 5 Bald Eagles (one adult, 4 immatures), several Black-necked Stilts, Marsh Wren. Very few terns were in evidence - perhaps on breeding colonies elsewhere. Other birds included Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Eastern Kingbird, Common Yellowthroat and Swamp Sparrow. I attempted a wander down the boardwalk trail to look for other passerines but was literally bombarded by biting insects within the first 50 yards (the greenheads grew more enthusiastic as it got hotter through the morning) so I gave up on that. Not a bad trip, 2 hours each way from Princeton and some relatively cheap gas found at Carney's Point on the NJ side, but ultimately the first failed chase after ten successful ones got me from 599-609.

Can't get them all.


Jill said...

I am not a birder but I have been learning about the people who are passionate about birding. I started learning about it when my husband and I bought a house in Slaughter Beach Delaware. It sits on a corner surrounded by the Prime Hook preserve. I have seen some remarkable wild life and I have been told that our home is a great location for sightings either from the deck or a short walk into the fields (I am not sure what their proper name is). My question to you is how do I let interested birders know about my home as an ideal "base camp" if they want to go birding this fall? I rent it out through I won't be able to be there to enjoy it and I hate to think of this opportunity being missed by someone who would truly appreciate it.

Phil Jeffrey said...

Hi Jill

Most regional lists probably don't allow semi-commercial posts, but you could always inquire of the list moderator for DEBirds. See for a list of email groups but bear in mind these are mainly bird sightings lists. has a lodging page. and are generalist sites that may or may not have analogous page. These would be decent start points.