Plants & Animals

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From Missouri Conservationist: Sep 2011

Snowy Egret

Don’t miss out on an opportunity to see these graceful birds before they leave for the winter.

The first time I saw a snowy egret (Egreta thula) was in a photograph. As I perused the image my gaze settled on the bird’s golden feet. I assumed somebody had altered the photograph as a prank because it seemed unnatural that a bird would possess such flamboyant foundations. Intrigued, I grabbed my favorite bird guide and turned to the snowy egret page where the first sentence read, “Note golden slippers.” From that moment on I looked forward to seeing my first snowy egret in real life. This past spring my opportunity arrived unexpectedly as I sat by a creek in St. Louis’ Forest Park. As I hid in a patch of bulrush, my telephoto lens trained on my favorite kingfisher perch, a white apparition with feet of gold landed on the very snag I was monitoring. After a moment of confusion I realized that I was only a few meters from a lovely snowy egret in stunning breeding plumage.

The snowy egret is a smallish white heron with a black bill, black legs and yellowish-gold feet. It has beautiful yellow eyes with yellow lores (area surrounding the eye) that become deep orange during breeding season. When in breeding plumage, a short veil of delicate feathers dances around the snowy’s head in the lightest breeze. A drape of similar plumage falls from its lower neck. The flowing back feathers terminate in an exquisite curvilinear display making the species one of the most delicately beautiful birds in Missouri. Snowy egrets are listed as endangered in Missouri and typically inhabit marshes and forests along the Mississippi River in the southeastern part of the state where they breed in colonies, often with other herons. Nests of sticks are built in trees and low-growing marsh plants. When the eggs hatch, both parents tend to the young until they leave the nest in a month or so. Snowy egrets feed on a variety of prey including fish, earthworms, crayfish, reptiles and amphibians.

Snowy egrets were nearly wiped out in the early 1900s as they were hunted for their gorgeous plume feathers. After recovering from that decline, snowy egret populations are now at risk due to loss of habitat, poor wetland water quality and human disturbance at nest sites. Protection and restoration of wetland and riparian corridor habitat is important to the recovery of snowy egrets. The Conservation Department has developed Best Management Practices that are helping to ensure viability of this elegant species.

I consider myself privileged to have photographed the snowy egrets that descended on Forest Park this year. I especially enjoyed watching them shuffle through the creek in their unique feeding pattern, snatching sunfish from water with aplomb. I later learned that they were likely nesting across the Mississippi River at Horseshoe Lake in Illinois. As I sorted through all of the images, I felt that this one best exemplified the pure visual poetry of the snowy egret, golden slippers and all.

—Story and photo by Danny Brown

This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler