An Egretful Morning
Crisp air, a thin mist rising from fields still silvered with hoarfrost; a hawk cries: keer, keeyer from one end of the mostly empty F parking lot as I pull in. And there, at the other end, eight large, feathery blobs, brilliant-white, crowding a pair of young redwood trees; a troupe of Great White Egrets, still snoozing. My little heart goes pitta-pat, pitta-pat—in a good way, not gotta-call-the-paramedics way. Long, pointy, pale yellow bills preen a stray feather now and then, some wing stretches cause branches to bounce. Sometimes it pays to look up; I see this troupe only that once.
It’s difficult to imagine that our few ponds hold enough fish or frogs to feed these feathery vagabonds for very long, so I shouldn’t be so dismayed. Egrets are wanderers, anyway, cruising around to favorite feeding spots, crashing - like your spouse’s hippie cousins - in whatever tall trees happen to be near by. In the spring, egrets will settle at nesting sites for a few months, but not always the same sites from year to year. And this group may well have roosted by the J lot again; it’s far more likely that I haven’t been that early to work since. But I still look for them as I drive west along East Cotati Ave., eager to catch another glimpse of these magnificent, elegant creatures.
Egrets are members of the widespread heron tribe (Family Ardierae) comprised of 60 different species and found on every continent except Antarctica. The Great Egret, a.k.a. the Great White Egret, (Casmerodius albus in current nomenclature, though sometimes categorized as Egretta alba or Ardea alba) is a strikingly graceful, easily observed wading bird, standing not quite four feet tall when fully upright, with a wingspan of about four and a half feet, barely weighing two pounds. The Great Egret has a yellow bill with dark legs, in contrast to the much smaller Snowy Egret, with a black bill and yellow feet at the end of black legs, as if mom made it wear short rain boots for mud-puddling. Egrets are darn patient too, like all good fisher-folk, standing motionless for many minutes in the shallows, waiting for some unlucky fish, lulled by inactivity, to wander close. Then, in a lightening strike, bye, bye, little fishy. Not only fish, either; egrets will eat just about anything they can spear and get down their long, limber throats. In the fields: mice, voles, moles, shrews, gophers, lizards, snakes, grasshoppers; in the wetlands: crabs, shrimp, all manner of fish, frogs, water snakes, even baby turtles, making egrets an impediment in our efforts to revive the plummeting populations of the Western Pond turtle.
These elegant birds, herons and egrets alike, have such distinct hunting postures that they have acquired specific, descriptive titles, such as: Stand and Wait, Walk Slowly (and by that we mean S-L-O-W-L-Y), Wing Flicker, Toe Wiggle, with the latter two movements designed to lure prey closer. The mating dance, one of the most beautiful in the world of birds, has standardized names for the ritual movements, too: Stretch, Wing Preen, Twig Shake, Bow and Snap. Reminds me of names for yoga poses or Tai Chi movements. , We are pretty lucky, because we can see Great Egret and Great Blue Heron displays at nearby Audubon Canyon Ranch on Highway One, not too far from the unmarked road to Bolinas. Beginning mid-March through mid-April, both species are busy with courtship and nest-building, accompanied by their elaborate dances, with egrets displaying their specialized plumes. Very long, quite elegant, these plumes lie passively along the egret’s back most of the time, unnoticed except for a certain added feathery length to the tail. In the ritual dances, these plumes are raised, fanning dramatically over its back, framing head and neck.
It was these plumes, known as aigrettes, which led to the almost-extinction of egrets. Beginning in the 1800’s, herons, egrets, parrots, and other beautifully-feathered birds were hunted, some to extinction, for their plumes, which were used solely for decoration in the hat and fashion industry. By 1900, egrets, once common in California, were considered rare and close to extinction. It was the dismay by British and American citizens in the 1890’s over the useless whole-sale slaughter of birds, particularly the impending worldwide demise of egrets, that kick-started the conservation movement. Tellingly, the national symbol for the Audubon Society is a Great Egret flying in, legs trailing as if to land on its nest. After laws banning the plume trade were enacted in 1900 and 1909, many of the bird populations recovered, though not all. The Great Egret populations, in particular, rebounded quite handily, with increases noted in California as early as 1911. Now both the Great White and the Snowy Egret are again common sights in the marshlands and fields around Sonoma County. A few even visit our campus, hanging around The Ponds, or stalking very, very patiently in the Salazar Quad, oblivious to the passing throngs of students. Common enough perhaps, but I always consider seeing any egret a good luck omen. Seeing eight that morning was like a double-dip, extra-rich lucky omen — with a Maraschino cherry on top.
Although egrets and herons dodged the plume-industry bullet, they are still under threat. They, along with so many other creatures, suffer from the loss of wetland habitats as we drain and fill them for every last micrometer of buildable land (in 1993, one estimate put the loss of wetlands at California at 95%) and they are threatened by industrial and agricultural toxins released into the waterways. We can only hope that our work to reverse this environmental damage succeeds before these elegant wading birds are truly lost, known only by the names adopted for some new sort of Bird Yoga or Egret Tai Chi —Wing Preen, Bow and Snap, Toe Waggle, Plume Wave, Stand and Wait, Walk S-L-O-W-L-Y.
For more information and photos, follow this link to the Bolinas Heronry at Audubon Canyon Ranch: http://www.egret.org/bolinas_lagoon.html