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Reddish Egret: the Rarest and Most Habitat-restricted Heron in Florida

Aug 28, 2017 12:03PM ● Published by Kevin

A reddish egret foraging for prey in shallow waters. Photo by William R. Cox.

A white-morph reddish egret in breeding plumage, foraging at Bunche Beach. Photo by William R. Cox.
The reddish egret (Egretta rufescens) is the least common heron in Florida. Strictly a coastal species, this wading bird is 27-32 inches long with a wing span of 3.5-4 feet. Rarely found inland, it is associated with estuaries, mangrove swamps, tidal flats and coastal lagoons. It is a permanent resident in the Keys and the southern half of Florida, and its numbers are slowly increasing in north Florida.

The reddish egret is a colorful and entertaining heron with two color morphs: red is the most common, but a small percentage of the population appears as a white morph. The red or dark morph is bluish gray with rusty head and neck. It has a large dark bill with pale eyes. Its legs and feet are bluish. The white morph has all white plumage. In breeding phases, both morphs have a maned appearance on the neck and head, flowing back plumes, cobalt legs, a bright pink bill with a very black tip and purple around the eyes. Juveniles of the red morph are cinnamon to gray without the bicolored bill.

The red-morph reddish egret can be confused with the great blue heron (Ardea herodias), tricolored heron (Egretta tricolor) and little blue heron (Egretta caerulea), though these breeding herons differ in that they do not have pink bills with dark tips and rusty necks. The great blue heron is also much larger. The white phase of the little blue heron and snowy egret (Egretta thula) do not have the dark bluish feet and legs of the white-morph reddish egret. The snowy egret also has yellow feet and lores. The great egret (Ardea alba) is also a large white wading bird with black legs, but it has a yellow bill and, during breeding, green lores. The white morph of the great blue heron has yellow legs rather than the bluish legs of the reddish egret.

Photo by William R. Cox.
Hit hard by plume hunting in the 19th century, the reddish egret has not recovered as fast as the other herons. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has listed the reddish egret, the rarest and most habitat-restricted heron in Florida, as a Species of Special Concern. It was almost extirpated in Florida by 1890 and has recovered very slowly since the 1930s, with protections in place.

This coastal species nests primarily in red or black mangroves in small numbers sometimes associated with rookeries of other wading birds. A loose stick nest is placed less than 10 feet above water or ground or usually three feet or more beneath the canopy. Both sexes help build the nest. The pair incubates two to five pale blue-green eggs for approximately 26 days. Both sexes feed and brood the nestlings after hatching. The young are fed by regurgitation. The young leave the colony in 9-10 weeks. The reddish egret does not breed until its third year, about a year later than most heron species.

The reddish egret feeds in shallow coastal waters, actively pursuing its prey of fish and aquatic invertebrates. It is much more active than other herons in chasing prey. Because of this foraging behavior, it is better able to exploit shallow open foraging habitats, but cannot pursue active prey in heavily vegetated freshwater wetlands or coastal marshes.

It is critical that the reddish egret is able to locate its nesting habitat close to its foraging habitat. This helps explain why its population is restricted to the Florida coasts and located primarily in Florida Bay and the Keys. The reddish egret feeds predominantly on fish, including more than 30 species in Florida Bay. Common fish prey include sailfin molly, sheepshead minnow, marsh killifish and goldspotted killifish. While photographing reddish egrets in south Florida, I have observed them foraging on longnose killifish, small gulf flounder and large needlefish.

Photo by William R. Cox.
The Florida reddish egret population continues to decline. It is reported as common throughout the year on Sanibel Island, while the other herons are abundantly observed there throughout the year. Important coastal foraging habitats have been destroyed by dredge-and-fill activities. The reddish egret is a habitat specialist, and the loss of foraging and nesting coastal wetlands has a negative impact on its population. Coastal waters are also impacted by some tourism activities, even in protected areas. Tourists need to be aware of which activities may disturb foraging and nesting birds. The Sanibel-Captive Audubon Society and J. N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society are active in aiding research to monitor the reddish egret’s utilization of coastal habitats and to learn more about its life history in south Florida. You can help this imperiled species by supporting these societies.

Written by William R. Cox, who has been a professional nature photographer and ecologist for more than 35 years. Visit him online at williamrcoxphotography.com.
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