Thursday 23 August 2018

Reddish Egret: A New Species for Ontario

The community of Oliphant, located on the southwestern flank of the Bruce Peninsula, is well-known as a rarity magnet. Shallow wetlands located along the Lake Huron shoreline near Oliphant provide extensive habitat for wading birds. Whenever I am in the area I like to pop in to Oliphant to have a scan of the flats and back in 2015 I discovered a Nelson's Sparrow there, at the time a first county record for Bruce, though no doubt they migrate through in small numbers each year. A quick scan of the OBRC data shows a few more notable birds that have been found in Oliphant over the years, including American White Pelican, Piping Plovers, and a White-winged Dove. Prior to yesterday, the biggest rarity to come out of Oliphant also represented one of the more insane birds to ever have shown up in Ontario - the Eurasian Dotterel that Michael Butler found on October 3, 2015. Yesterday, the second provincial first in four years was discovered along the Oliphant waterfront.

Kiah Jasper and Alfred Raab popped in to have a look at the flats on their way to meeting up with members of the Bruce Birding Club for an outing. In the dim early morning light they noticed an odd heron feeding on the flats. At the time they were unsure of the ID, thinking that it may be a Little Blue Heron but potentially Reddish Egret. They soon continued on to meet up with their group, putting out a note on a local email group about the odd heron.

Reddish Egret - Oliphant, Bruce County, Ontario 

A couple of eBird checklists were produced that morning by Jarmo Jalava, with the bird listed as Little Blue Heron. Sharp-eyed Brandon Holden was scrolling through the eBird sightings and happened upon one of the checklists. He realized it was a Reddish Egret and soon word began spreading. Reddish Egret had never been seen before in Ontario!

All of this was happening while I was stuck at the office in Kitchener for some meetings. Stepping outside the building at 2:30 PM I checked my phone and noticed I had several texts and missed calls. Five minutes later, having viewed the photos, I turned my car north on Highway 85 to begin the long drive up to Oliphant.

Ken Burrell and Barb Charlton were also on the scene when I pulled in around 5 PM, though the egret was M.I.A. Other birders began filtering in, including quite a few familiar faces - Keith Burk, Steve Charbonneau, Isabel Apkarian, Cheryl Edgecombe, David Szmyr, Glenn Coady, Rich Poort - and we all either waited patiently, or searched up and down Shore Road to investigate other potentially suitable areas where it could be hiding. Finally, around 6:30 PM, Barb received a phone call. Rich and Cheryl had re-found the bird just north of where we were all standing!

For the next 45 minutes we all enjoyed views of this mega-rarity, hunting in the shallow marshes less than 100 m away. Other birders kept arriving by the minute, and everyone was able to enjoy incredible views of the southern stray.

Reddish Egret - Oliphant, Bruce County, Ontario 

Reddish Egret is a medium-sized wading bird that is found primarily in the Caribbean, but also along the Gulf coast and Pacific coast from Baja California south to Costa Rica. Listed as Near Concern by the IUCN, it is estimated that 15,000 - 30,000 are currently found in the wild. Like many other wading birds, Reddish Egret is well-known for vagrancy and individuals have been reported before up and down both coasts of North America and even occasionally inland. With records from Indiana, Illinois and Ohio, it seemed like only a matter of time until one crossed the border into Ontario.
Reddish Egret - Oliphant, Bruce County, Ontario 

Back in 2011 I published two blog posts about 20 bird species that I predicted would be next added to the Ontario checklist. Looking back on those posts, many of my selections aren't the best, but I did have Reddish Egret listed as #1.  (I even picked the correct month!). It certainly was not an original idea however, as for years Ontario birders have been predicting that Reddish Egret would be added to the Ontario checklist.

The Reddish Egret hunted small fish in the shallows and was quite successful, swallowing a half dozen fish while I watched. It utilized a technique well-known with the species - chasing down the fish with its wings spread out to reduce glare, and deftly picking the fish out of the water. A much different technique than the typical ambush strategies provided by our local Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets. I caught some of it on video through my scope.

This plumage is a tricky one, especially if one is not familiar with the intricacies of Reddish Egret identification. Its overall size is much smaller than a Great Egret but larger than a Snowy Egret or Little Blue Heron, and it has a long, dagger-like dark bill and dark legs. The chalky gray and blue plumage is unique to this species, while its hunting behavior also helps to identify it as a Reddish Egret. Reddish Egrets come in two main colour morphs - white and dark. I haven't researched Reddish Egret molt / ageing yet, but I would imagine this is a dark-morph bird that was born this year (or could it be a second year bird?). 

Reddish Egret - Oliphant, Bruce County, Ontario 

It was great to see Kiah and Alfred as well and everyone was happy to provide their congratulations. Below is a photo of them, with the Reddish Egret feeding busy in the marsh behind them (you'll have to take my word on that).

Kiah Jasper (left) and Alfred Raab (right) - Oliphant, Bruce County, Ontario 

At 7:10 PM the Reddish Egret took to the wing and flew north, over some cedars and an Osprey nesting platform and out of sight. It was not seen by subsequent birders arriving so presumably it had gone to roost for the night. However, this morning the Reddish Egret was found in the original area so it appears to be sticking around (for now). Good luck to anyone who goes searching for it. And a big thank you to Kiah and Alfred for an awesome bird!


Pamela Katch said...

Great article Josh, thanks so much for posting! I might try a run over myself tomorrow.

Jonathan Wilhelm said...

Nice photos! Sure is an awesome find. I was really excited to catch up with it this afternoon.

Anonymous said...

This bird is still being reported on Ontbirds list serve on August 29. What is your prognosis?