There was only one kind of dark egret wading through the tidal waters in the Gulf of Kutch. That was the western reef egret (Egretta gularis), which would stir up the water delicately with its long toes, before becoming totally still and gazing down at at. The thing about traveling with expert bird watchers is that you get to learn little snippets like the fact that there is a “morph” of the bird with white feathers. I’d seen and read about birds changing colours around their breeding season, so I didn’t pay it much attention. It was only later that I read a report which made it clear that the different “morphs” of E. gularis are like human skin colour, fixed at birth and unchanging. So it makes sense that someone would write a long article about how to tell the difference between the white morph of E. gularis and the little egret (Egretta garzetta). So next time I see a small white egret I’ll carefully look to see whether the beak and the forehead are in a line, and whether the back of the head is blunt. If it is, then I know it must be E. gularis. But if the head is more rounded then it has to be E. garzetta.
I watched one hold its body quite still as it gazed intently into the water. Occasionally it would move its head forward a little, and I would wait for it to strike. But it didn’t. I was surprised later to see a paper which had studied these motions of the head to determine how the bird corrected for refraction of the image of its prey in the water. Apparently, this slow forward motion of its head scans a range of angles, allowing it to determine the true position of the prey. At the moment it decides to strike, its beak moves in a straight line towards the prey, piercing through the water to catch it with slightly parted beaks. I wish I had managed to catch it in action.