Grays Harbor Birds — Great Egret (Ardea alba)

Shortly after moving to the Pacific Northwest nearly 15 years ago, I was out walking my dog on what used to be called the Oyhut Game Range, now called the Oyhut Wildlife Area. This was a favorite destination as there are no cars to dodge, the agate-hunting is good, and it wasn’t very crowded back then.

My binoculars are always with me on these excursions; you just never know what you will see out there. On this particular time, I didn’t really need them as the bird I observed was big enough to easily see without the binos; it was huge and all white, with a large yellow bill and long black legs. My first thought (as a recent transplant from California) was it was an albino Great Blue Heron, because surely Great Egrets were not this far north. But they are, and I was looking at one. Great Egrets are almost as big as a Great Blue Heron, but lack the plume off the back of the head that the heron has, and they are a slimmer silhouette.

One of the neat things about the Great Egret is it became the symbol of the National Audubon Society, formed to protect them from being killed for the long plumes that formed on their backs during breeding season. It is estimated that 95 percent of the Great Egrets in North America were killed for their plumes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Killing them was banned in 1910. Some years, there are more of them seen around the harbor, and they get people’s attention; this is one of those years. Incidentally, there are white morphs of the Great Blue Heron, but I am told they are found only in Florida. Here are a few more facts about these beautiful birds.

Size: They stand 39 inches high, have a whopping 51-inch wingspan, and weigh just under two pounds.

General Description: A large, all white, long-necked and long-legged wader, with a long yellow bill and black legs and feet. During breeding season they form long plumes on their back and tails.

Habitat: Generally, Great Egrets are usually found in fresh-water wetlands and marshes, but can also be seen in brackish or saltwater marshes. They also forage in open areas around lakes and along rivers.

Behavior: Great Egrets can be found feeding individually, with other egrets, or even with Great Blue Herons. Their method of hunting is standing still and watching, or slowly stalking their prey in shallow water, then quickly thrusting their head to grab it with their bills.

Diet: Fish is their primary food, but they also eat frogs, rodents, grasshoppers, crustaceans, and other aquatic creatures.

Nesting: During the breeding season, Great Egrets live in colonies that may be multi-species, in trees or shrubs, on or near lakes, ponds, estuaries, and marshes. They are often the first species to arrive on the breeding grounds and may induce other species to begin nesting. They also tend to nest higher than other species, and they don’t begin breeding until 2 or 3 years old. The male builds the nest platform of long sticks and twigs then displays to attract a mate who helps to finish the nest, which can be up to 3 feet across and 1 foot deep. Both sexes incubate the three to four eggs for 23 to 26 days, and both feed the young by regurgitation. The young begin to climb around the nest at about 3 weeks, but don’t fledge until 6 to 7 weeks.

Migration Status: Birds in our milder climate on the coast remain here throughout the winter. Some individuals may wander after breeding season ends.

Conservation Status: The Great Egret has made a remarkable recovery since the passage of the 1914 International Migratory Bird Treaty, and the breeding range has slowly expanded northwards. The first record of Great Egrets nesting in the state was in 1979 in Potholes Reservoir, Grant County, and along the Columbia River in Benton and Franklin counties. They continue to expand rapidly into southwestern Washington.

When and Where to Find in Grays Harbor: As I mentioned earlier, they are seen out on the Oyhut Wildlife Area, along the edges of the small lakes or ponds in the county, or in the many marshlands around the harbor. Look for the big, white bird.