Return of the Egret

Flora and Fauna Fridays

The life of our estuary and watershed.


Egret on English Kills. Photo by Bernie Ente. 

by Erik Baard (courtesy of Nature Calendar)

A skeptic might say that a naturalist hoping for the Great Egret to visit the Newtown Creek is a bit like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin. Happily, the skeptic would be wrong. This week the Newtown Creek Alliance reported its first egret sighting of 2017, and included an admonition for the Environmental Protection Agency to keep after polluters to clean up the waterway.

The first person to obsessively photograph the Newtown Creek for public education and activation was Bernie Ente, whose loss we still feel six years after his death on April 8, 2011. One of our canoes flies a Bernie Ente flag, created by Caroline Walker based on one of his breathtaking green heron photos. Even the marvelous moment above Bernie captured with a cheap point-and-shoot camera.

The beautiful Great Egret is internationally known as the Audubon Society’s symbol. The society was formed over a century ago when a fashion for feathered hats wiped out 95% of the Great Egret population. Citizens were sparked into action, and they formed one of our nation’s earliest conservation movements and made history when national wildlife protection laws were passed. Today the threat to this species is less visible and dramatic, but equally real: our wetlands are receding at an alarming rate due to pollution and at times thoughtless development. Without healthy marsh grasses, this species of bird will just as surely die off as if hunters set their sites on them.

I’ve most often seen egrets on Mill Rock Island just south of Hell Gate, and they’ve been reported at North Brother and South Brother islands, and the islands of the Arthur Kill. You can recognize them easily by their yellow bills, black legs, and white feathers. In flight they flex their necks into an S shape, and their wingspan is impressive at well over four feet (more than a meter).

Though a mate to the bird in the photo was on a nearby muddy bank, often a great egret will be spotted as the sole representative of its species among many other birds, all congregating. This is normal, and perhaps understandable for a creature that starts life with a battle to the death with siblings in the nest! As adults, Great Egrets hunt alone, stalking small amphibians and fish, snakes, and crustaceans in the shallows of coves and inlets like Anable Basin, Bushwick Inlet, Fresh Kills, and the Newtown Creek. Mill Rock is in the center of the East River, but has a delightful little cove notched into its northern side.