A juvenile little blue heron showed up at Cowan’s Ford Refuge in Huntersville last weekend. The species is an uncommon summer visitor to our area; a few individuals are found each year at ponds and wetlands. A purposeful search of some of the more productive sites this time of year could turn up one or two. Little blue herons are unique in that the juveniles are white while the adult birds are slate blue with a brown head and neck. By far, the white young birds are the most likely to be found here.
There are three other white waders that you might encounter during the hot Piedmont summer: the snowy egret, the cattle egret and the great egret. Two of the three smaller species may cause some confusion, but with a good look and a field guide, most birds can be identified as to species.
Let’s start with the easiest, the great egret. Large size, obvious yellow bill and black legs are all easy marks to see. Great egrets approach the great blue heron in size. They feed by moving methodically around the edges of ponds. This species will be the most commonly seen white wader in our area.
Juvenile little blue herons are half the size of a great egret. With a casual look the bill may appear black, but closer inspection will show it to be blue-gray at the base tending toward black at the tip. The bill also will show a slight droop at the tip. The legs are greenish yellow. This species is the most likely small white heron to show up.
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The next white wader possibly to be found is the snowy egret. Look for a straight black bill and black legs with conspicuous yellow feet. Some young birds’ legs may be dingy black with some greenish areas. The lores, the area between the base of the bill and the eyes, are yellow. They tend to be more active feeders than the previous two species.
Cattle egrets are rare here, but a wandering bird shows up every few years. Much smaller than the great egret, these little waders have a yellow bill and yellow legs. They are also more likely to be found in grassy situations instead of wetlands.
Let me know if you see any of these white waders, and as always, send me a photo if you can.
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.