Egrets, regrets

When a cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) flew up to sat on a tree at dawn, I had to take out my camera to take some photos. After having spent some time in my initial years of watching birds, I’ve given up looking at these white egrets. They are very common, and since the four species are not terribly easy to tell apart, I don’t usually bother to either record them or to look hard. Cattle egrets are the easiest to tell apart from the others; they always have some yellow on them. In the breeding season it covers their head, neck, and back. In winter, the yellow recedes to a small patch on its forehead, as you see in the photo above.

To identify the other white egrets you have to look at the feet and beaks. Since the birds are usually seen in extremely muddy places, this is not easy. The little egret (Egretta garzetta) has a dark beak, dark legs, and yellow feet. In breeding season it has two long plumes hanging behind its nape. The large egret (Casmerodius alba, formerly Ardea alba) has dark legs and feet. Its beak is dark in the breeding season, and yellow otherwise. In both seasons it has a dark line extending from the beak under its eyes and beyond. This is called the gape line. If you see it flex its somewhat longer neck, you might see a kink in the neck. In the photo above (taken last February near Jamnagar), the gape line clearly extends beyond the eye, and there is a definite S-shaped kink in the neck, both telling us that this is a large egret. The intermediate egret (Mesophoyx intermedia, formerly Ardea intermedia) is the most confusing. Its legs, feet, and beak are very similar to that of the large egret, but the gape line stops below the eye. Also, its neck is a little shorter, and does not kink into an S-shape. Distinguishing them is always a puzzle, and I’m never sure that it worth taking the time to solve.

Around the World in 30 Days (4)

This was my second time in the US. After the Smoky mountains I took a zigzag path to Florida. I had no real plan except to take some time from work to make a pilgrimage to Cape Kennedy, to see the place from which the longest trip in human history was made. But some people I met up with suggested a trip to the Everglades. So we piled into a car and drove down to the National Park.

A walk through the park would have been rewarding enough for me, the sight of Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) hanging from trees was so amazing. It was still a while before the world wide web would replace reference books, so it was not till that December that I had time to sit down and figure out that this was not moss, but a flowering plant, distantly related to pineapples.

It was possible to take a boat ride through the river. I was glad we decided to do that, because it was one of the most instructive rides I had. There were lots of turtles and alligators to be seen, and this picture of an alligator asleep with its snout resting on the back of a turtle was something that remained in my mind. I was surprised to look at the picture again and discover that my actual photo was not so good.

It would be decades before I began bird watching. This must have been my first time out spotting birds. As the launch puttered past stately mangroves, the guide pointed out various birds. I think the photo above was of a cast of vultures. Looking at it now along with a checklist of the birds of the Everglades, I think they were turkey vultures (Cathartes aura). I didn’t remember that at all.

This bird drying itself on a fallen mangrove does not seem to be a darter. My money is on it being a Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), simply because it is the most common of cormorants in the Everglades. But it could be Double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus). I can’t remember, and from this photo there is no way to tell. It would be another twenty years before I learnt to take multiple photos of every bird I saw so that I could identify it later.

The bird in the center of this photo is a great egret (Ardea alba), a common bird found everywhere. I wouldn’t usually take a picture of it these days, but it kind of anchors this landscape well. This picture captures the impression of the Everglades that I hold in my memory: forest, swamp, birds, and rivers.

I eventually went to Cape Kennedy but didn’t take my camera. I can’t believe how seldom I would carry my camera thirty years ago. I found that there was a shuttle launch the next day, and was sad I would miss it because I would be boarding my flight home at roughly that time. Incredibly, soon after my flight took off, the captain announced a space shuttle to port. I was next to a window, and I looked out to see the space shuttle Atlantis. It had just taken off for its mission of 15 November, 1990. For a while I could see this ball of fire flying parallel to our path, and then it veered off and was lost in the haze of the atmosphere. I couldn’t have planned a better to start the last flight of my journey around the world.