Creature Feature: Great Egret

Egret
Like a ghostly apparition
the egret did appear
beautiful in its white paleness
though almost unaware
that two strangers were viewing
such a beautiful bird
speechless and in awe
that such a situation
could hardly be put into words.

G Paul Fisher

Whether you know it as the common egret, large egret, great white heron or Great Egret the stunning Adrea alba graces the skies and waters of The Woodlands and has a wonderful story to tell.  

Fast Facts 

  1. Second largest heron in North America, next to the Great Blue Heron. 
  1. Has four subspecies spread across five continents. 
  1. Great Egrets were decimated by plume hunters in the late 1800’s; populations plunged by 95 percent. Their plight spawned the nation-wide bird conservation movement. Legal protection has resulted in a remarkable comeback. 
  1. Symbol of the National Audubon Society, which was founded to protect bird populations.  

What do they look like? 

  • All white with black legs and a yellow bill.  
  • Weigh only 2 pounds despite reaching a height of 41 inches with a wingspan of 55 inches. 
  • During breeding season (late December to early July) the patch of skin on the face turns lime green and long plumes, called aigrettes, grow down the back.  

What do they eat?  

  • Mostly fish. Will also eat crustaceans, frogs, lizards, snakes, and insects.  
  • Hunts in shallow water, impaling prey on its long, sharp beak. 

What eats them? 

  • They have no real predators as adults. Most would-be predators avoid such a large bird. However, raccoons, hawks, owls and snakes raid their nests for eggs and chicks. 

Why do we need them? 

  • Great Egrets play an important role in balancing aquatic and riparian ecosystems by controlling amphibian, insect, and small mammal populations.  

Want more information? 

Within The Woodlands, Great Egrets have at times created large nesting sites in residential areas. Abandoned nests can be removed to deter egrets from nesting in your trees, however active nests are protected by the Federal Migratory Birds Treaty Act and cannot be removed.  

Learn how to effectively and legally address nesting egrets by visiting the Wildlife Section at www.thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov/environment.   

Nests are built high in trees to avoid predators. Males select the location, but it is common to return to the same nesting site year after year.  

Interested in learning more about local wildlife? Check out these past articles:  

Creature Feature: Cormorant

Combine a goose and a loon, stir in a few prehistoric features, and there you have it – the captivating cormorant. You’ve likely noticed this sleek black deep diver with a snake-like neck frequenting Township waters this time of year. Two species are native to our area. The Double – crested cormorant (Nannopterum auritum) resides year-round while the Neotropic cormorant (Nannopterum brasilianum) visits primarily in the winter.  

Distinguishing between the two can be difficult; there are more similarities than differences. The fact that they flock together makes it even more challenging. Perhaps the easiest tell is the white outlining specific to the head and chin of the adult Neotropic. Bear in mind, juveniles of both species have their own color variations, so if you’re keen on identifying correctly, best to bring along a bird identification guide.  

Neotropic Cormorant
Double-crested cormorant

You’ll find large numbers fishing in local waterways, ponds and lakes. A drive past the south end of Lake Woodlands will almost guarantee a glimpse of a few dozen sunning themselves, wings outstretched.

Cormorants spend most of their time out of the water, resting or holding their wings open to dry. 

Fast Facts 

1. When threatened a Double-crested cormorant may vomit fish at a predator. 

2. The name cormorant is derived from the Latin corvus marinus, which means “sea raven”. Not actually related to ravens, this misnomer likely dates to the Middle Ages when most black birds were referred to as ravens. 

3. The cormorant served as a hood ornament for the Packard automobile brand. (Many people mistakenly believed it to be a swan.) 

Cormorants are pellet-makers. Similar to owls, they spit out pellets that contain bones and scales of the fish they eat. 

What do they eat? 

Primarily fish-eaters, an adult can eat a pound of fish a day. Groups of cormorants work together forming a line as they cross the water, hitting the surface with their wings then take turns diving below to catch fleeing fish. Their long, thin bill has a sharp hook at the end – great for catching small fish. 

Cormorants will also dine on crustaceans, snakes, and amphibians.  

What eats them?  

Most predators are unable to access cormorants easily as they  slip into the water or take flight to escape. If given the opportunity coyotes, alligators, bald eagles and great horned owls will prey on adults and juveniles. Foxes, raccoons, skunks and some birds (crows, jays and grackles) will take advantage of unattended eggs and chicks.   

Why do we need them? 

They play a critical role in nature’s complex food web by helping keep fish, and other aquatic organisms, from overpopulating our waterways. 

And that’s not all 

Cormorants aren’t your average waterbird. Did you know they are uniquely designed to be excellent divers and underwater swimmers. More like a seal than a bird! 

And unlike ducks, cormorants’ feathers are not very waterproof. Instead, their feathers are designed to get waterlogged, allowing these feathery fishermen to sink and dive more efficiently. Their bones also have a higher density than other aquatic avians.   

Double-crested cormorants can dive to depths up to 25 feet and stay underwater for over a minute. Check out the video below and see for yourself just how amazing these birds are at swimming.  

There’s no denying it – cormorants are cool. Next time you’re at a local park with a pond or lake, hopefully you’ll get to experience these fascinating feathered friends yourself.  

Interested in learning more about local wildlife? Check out these past articles: 

Backyard Birds Part II

One sunny morning last month, the most unusual visitors appeared at my birdbath. Well, maybe not that unusual. It is a birdbath after all. I snapped off as many photos as I could before they hurried on their way. But after 10 minutes, cat and human noses remained pressed to the window, soaking up the scene. Finally they did take flight and I assumed that would be the last we’d see of them. Until the next day when they returned for another bath. And stayed for an entire week! 

So, who were these unexpected backyard visitors?  A couple of juvenile Cooper’s Hawks.

Like so many of you, I’m fascinated by our native wildlife. And while many critters can’t easily avail themselves of my yard, that’s not the case for birds. Since my hawk visitors have departed, I’ve taken steps to make my backyard more ‘bird friendly’ in hopes of inviting more avian friends in.  Bird baths and feeders were easy to add and cleaning them weekly keeps visitors happy and healthy. Adding in native plants like American Beautyberry, Barbados Cherry and Turk’s Cap were next. These plants not only look great in my yard but provide shelter and food for birds, bees and butterflies.  A few birdhouses are next, once I determine the best fit for my yard. The National Wildlife Federation’s “Create a Bird-Friendly Habitat” has served as a great guide.  

And it’s working. Carolina wrens, cardinals, robins, and even a downy woodpecker are a few of the recent visitors. Perhaps a rufous hummingbird or an eastern screech owl will make the next appearance in my bird-friendly yard. 

I don’t know if I’ll see those Cooper’s hawks again, but I do know that they’ll forever be the catalyst to me becoming a backyard birder. Join me in exploring some of the larger native birds that are likely to stop by – if you lay out the welcome mat.   

Backyard Birds: Raptors

The word “raptor” means “to seize or grasp” in Latin. Raptors use their powerful, sharp talons to catch prey and to defend themselves.  

More on Backyard Birds 

3 Rules All Birders Should Know 

Bird is the Word 

Backyard Birds 

Common Birds of Houston, Texas by Houston Audubon Society 


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The 3 Rules all Birders Need to Know

Birding is one of the fastest growing outdoor activities in the country. Formerly known as “birdwatchers,” birders come from all walks of life, running the gamut of professions, age, and locales. There are as many varieties of birders as there are birds – and as many reasons we enjoy it.

Whether deep in the woods or standing at the kitchen window, birding strengthens our connection to the outdoors. Birds draw us in with their complex behaviors, beautiful plumage and captivating melodies. They can be observed day and night, alone or with a group, competitively or casually. I do most of my birding while engaging in other activities like walking in the park, weeding the garden, and sipping my morning coffee. Birders also contribute mightily to the scientific world by reporting their observations through apps like Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird and Merlin Bird ID.

If you want to get a little more serious about your birding, try challenging yourself: quickly check off a list, learn to identify calls, or improve your observation skills by identifying birds in flight.

In 2015, an Oregon man visited 41 countries, across all 7 continents, and recorded 6,042 species of birds observed in just one year. There are an estimated 10,400 known bird species on Earth.

Regardless of what form birding takes, we are all held to an important code of ethics that ensures birders and birds alike are only positively impacted by this ever-growing pursuit.

The American Birding Association and National Audubon Society recommend the following guidelines:

1. Respect and promote birds and their environment. 

(a) Support the conservation of birds and their habitats.  

(b) Avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger.  

  • Be particularly cautious around active nests and nesting colonies, roosts, display sites, and feeding sites.  
  • Limit the use of recordings and other audio methods of attracting birds in heavily birded areas, and for species that are threatened, endangered or not common to the area,  
  • Always exercise caution and restraint when photographing, recording, or otherwise approaching birds. 

(c) Always minimize habitat disturbance.  

  • Consider the benefits of staying on trails, preserving snags, birding in small groups, and following leave no trace principles including disposing of waste properly, leave what you find and traveling on durable surfaces. 
Outdoor cat owners are encouraged to put a bell on the cat’s collar to protect birds from silent, stalking felines.

2. Respect and promote the birding community and its individual members. 

(a) Be an ethical role model by following this Code and leading by example. Always bird and report with honesty and integrity. 

(b) Respect the interests, rights, and skill levels of fellow birders, as well as people participating in other outdoor activities. Freely share your knowledge and experience and be especially helpful to beginning birders. 

(c) Share bird observations freely, provided such reporting would not violate other sections of this Code, as birders, ornithologists, and conservationists derive considerable benefit from publicly available bird sightings. 

(d) Approach instances of perceived unethical birding behavior with sensitivity and respect; try to resolve the matter in a positive manner, keeping in mind that perspectives vary. Use the situation as an opportunity to teach by example and to introduce more people to this Code. 

(e) In group birding situations, share your knowledge of this Code of Ethics with the group to ensure the group does not unduly interfere with others using the same area. 

3. Respect and promote the law and the rights of others. 

(a) Never enter private property without the landowner’s permission. Respect the interests of and interact positively with people living in the area where you are birding. 

(b) Familiarize yourself with and follow all laws, rules, and regulations governing activities at your birding location. In particular, be aware of regulations related to birds, such as disturbance of protected nesting areas or sensitive habitats, and the use of audio or food lures. 

By following these ethics, we ensure that both birders and the birds we admire experience safe and beneficial interactions.  

Check out these past articles on birding for beginners 

Bird is the Word 

Backyard Birds  


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How To Help Migrating Birds This Fall

Thousands of birds migrate through The Woodlands every fall. The reason – food. As days grow shorter, birds begin to head south in search of abundant food and warmer temperatures. Lucky for us, The Woodlands happens to lie right along the path that many species take on their journey south. Our warm climate and dense vegetation provides an ideal rest stop for swifts, swallows, hummingbirds, hawks, flycatchers, warblers and more. Our parks, yards and preserves are heavy with greenery, berries and flowers throughout the fall, but are they providing the food these migrating birds need?

The Early Bird Catches the Worm

…and the berries, insects, seeds and nuts. The most sought after avian delicacies varies with the season. Research shows that all birds, migrating and resident species, require different nutrition in winter than in warmer months. Summer is breeding season for most species and protein to produce healthy eggs and chicks is in high demand. Protein means insects and lots of them. Consider that a single pair of chickadees must find 6,000-9,000 caterpillars to raise their young!

More than 80% of all bird species rely on insects for part or all of their diet. The native Hackberry (Celtis laevigata) attracts insects for hungry birds, who also enjoy its fruit all summer long.

As breeding season ends, birds shift their diet from protein to fat to help them survive cold nighttime temperatures. Fat intake is extra critical for migrators in preparation for the grueling flight ahead. Produce from Woodlands natives such as American beautyberry, wax myrtle, coral honeysuckle, native dogwoods and viburnums, and yaupon holly are prized. Right now, most of these species are in the early stages of their fall and winter fruit and nut production.

Our native plants (and insects) have co-evolved with birds over the centuries, meaning birds depend on the specific nutrition these species provide. So, not just any seed, nut or berry will do. Consider the popular non-native plant, nandina (heavenly bamboo). It produces a bevy of bright red berries – quite attractive to our eye as well as the bird’s. Unfortunately, nandina berries, like most non-native berries, are sorely lacking in fat and other nutrients. Much like feeding french fries to a marathoner, these imitation foods leave birds depleted, unable to complete their migration route or make it through a cold night.

Just like you and me, birds need the right food. Here’s how to help.

Fall in Love with Natives

Migrating birds face several threats to their continued survival: the greatest being loss of habitat. We often think of habitat loss as a paved over forest. Yet, despite the green appearance, our lawns and landscapes have the same impact if they’re devoid of native plants. Much like a parking lot, they become a food desert for birds and other wildlife.

The simplest yet most impactful action you can take to support our migrating birds this fall is to add native plants to your landscape. Remove non-native or invasive plants to ensure you’re providing only nutrient rich food, not french fries.

Not sure where to begin? use the reference guide below and consider joining our free, online Invasives Species Workshop from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, August 14, 2021, to learn how to identify invasive plants in our community. Register online here to receive more information.

Backyard Feeders

For those who go one step further in helping our feathered friends with backyard feeders, consider that not all seed mixes are the same. Cheap mixes are full of milo, wheat, red millet, and various grains that birds can’t make use of. Most all of these “low cost” seed mixes contain little protein and almost no fat. The same holds for black oil sunflower seed. Cheaper seeds are often those which didn’t fully mature and lack protein and fat. Spend a little more on a quality seed and you’ll be rewarded with more frequent and healthier visitors.


Questions or comments?

Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov