I spent early Sunday morning in a park, camouflaged in a ghillie suit, very much out-of-place in the center of Amarillo, TX. Fortunately it was still dark and I didn’t arouse suspicion. Once in the cover of a wooded area the suit broke up my outline and the colors matched the background and I disappeared to both human and other animal observers, as long as I moved slowly. And move slowly I did. I was stalking a rookery of herons and it took me an hour to move 100 meters to be in place to photograph and video these beautiful birds. Even before light there was a great deal of commotion and awesome sounds coming from the rookery. I saw 4 species, cattle egrets (the most common), black-crowned night herons (second most numerous) and a few snowy and 1 great egret. The lighting was terrible so my ISO was set high. The morning was very overcast and the sun broke through just a time or two and only briefly then. Regardless, I had a wonderful time watching and listening to these birds. I was surprised by how aggressive, downright violent at times, these beautiful birds were. There was bullying, stealing of nesting materials, and plain old brawls going on the whole time I was present. I remained undetected for the most part, slipping up twice when I got tired from the tediously slow stalk. I simply moved too fast and a number of birds flushed but returned right away. I don’t think they ever recognized me but just saw movement that was suspicious.
Below is a snowy egret, recognized by its black bill and legs and its “golden slippers” as Dr. Zimmerman, my ornithology professor, liked to call them. They actually use their bright feet to scare up prey by shuffling them along under the water as they move forward. For whatever reason, the snowy egret remained out of any squabbles, seemingly too dignified to get involved. Or perhaps simply a butt kicker that is best left alone.
Cattle egrets were in great abundance and, while small relative to the black-crowned night herons, held their own in numerous battles I observed. These small egrets, now in their breeding plumage displaying an orange wash on their backs, heads, and upper chests, can be separated from the snowy egrets by a lighter bill and lack of “golden slippers” and it generally forages in fields, not on the water’s edge. This species, amazingly, managed to colonize South America from Africa on its own and has since moved up through Central America into the US. The can be spotted feeding along side cattle (hence the name), snapping up insects the cattle stir up.
I love night herons. Just the name “night heron” suggests these birds lurk in the dark and snap up unsuspecting prey. They are generally secretive but in some places can be quite abundant. We have only the black-crowned here, with the yellow-crowned being found farther south in Texas. These are handsome birds, with black and contrasting light plumage and wispy feathers serving as ornaments trailing down the back of their heads. They also have blood-red eyes which adds a nice finishing touch to their overall appearance. The photo below shows a black-crowned night heron (background) in a serious squabble with a cattle egret (foreground). The cattle egret, with the help of a colleague, ended up winning this battle and displacing the night heron.
Hanging out under a rookery was a great way to start a Sunday. I’ll have to be sure to make a trip back when they have young in the nests.