Great Egret (Photos by Don Reimer) Click on dots below for more photos.
Great Egret (Photos by Don Reimer) Click on dots below for more photos.
Let’s face it, distinguishing among the herons and egrets can get a bit confusing. Even some avian experts have fussed with the proper classifications of these species. As members of the wader family, all have long legs and necks and feed in or around water. Herons and egrets are mainly colonial and monogamous in their behavior.

So what are the chief differences? Egrets are considered different from herons because egrets are mainly white and may or may not have decorative plumes that develop during the breeding season. The word “egret” is derived from the French word “aigrette,” which means “plume feathers.” In most cases, egrets are also smaller than the herons.

Herons come in a variety of reddish, gray and blue tones and pursue a diverse carnivorous diet of fish, insects, amphibians, reptiles, mollusks and crustaceans. Some herons even feed on bird eggs and small birds.

While the majority of heron and egret species are semitropical in distribution, about a dozen species summer here in Maine. Several distinguishing physical features are worth mentioning. Herons can retract their neck during flight since a sixth vertebrae in the neck is modified to create the bird’s graceful S-shaped profile. Interestingly, the neck length of daytime herons is longer than that of the skulking nighttime herons.

Anatomically, these waders’ esophageal and tracheal systems are positioned in behind the skeletal vertebrae. This makes the shortest route to the stomach and provides additional protection from damage to the foreneck during a strike. The spear-like bills of herons and egrets vary in size and shape. With their lightning-fast neck reflexes, waders can whip the bill forward like a zinging 90-mile-per-hour fastball.

Now let’s highlight three waders that appear here in Maine. If you’ve passed Weskeag Marsh recently, you may have noticed scores of white egrets foraging in the front pool areas. Standing at over three feet tall, the larger Great Egrets nest offshore near Scarborough Marsh and wander widely at the conclusion of nesting season. Great Egret populations were decimated by plume hunters in the late 1800s but recovered rapidly with protection early in the 20th century. Their breeding range has expanded gradually northward in recent decades. Today the iconic Great Egret serves as the conservation symbol of the National Audubon Society.

The small Green Heron is a solitary and somewhat secretive bird, living around small bodies of water or densely vegetated areas of trees, shrubs and marsh grasses. The bird’s iridescent greenish back often looks dull bluish or simply dark. Greenies often flick their tail nervously and raise and lower their crest in the manic style of a punk rocker.

Standing still as a statue or slowly stalking its prey, this inventive heron also “fishes” for prey by dropping feathers or small twigs onto the water surface to lure fish into range.

Two species of night-herons occur in Maine. The Black-Crowned species nests locally, while the more southern-dwelling Yellow-Crowned seems increasingly evident along the Maine coastline. Adult Yellow-Crowneds are best identified by their bold black-and-white facial pattern and streaming head plumes.

A variety of prey is consumed, but freshwater and saltwater crabs are the dietary mainstay. Yellow-Crowns lunge with their bills, swallowing smaller animals whole. Crab specialists, they seize larger crabs by the legs or pincers and shake them apart, then swallow the pieces whole; they may also impale crabs, paralyzing them for easier handling.