We were returning from a trip to lovely St. Augustine, and Don decided to skip the interstate and take wonderful back roads home. It was quite pleasant driving through forested areas and rolling green hills with large horse and cow pastures, instead of fighting with a herd of speeding cars on the busy highway.
It’s deeply ingrained in us to notice birds along our rides, but even non-birders probably would have noticed the hundreds and hundreds of cattle egrets we were continually driving past. Cattle egrets are a small white heron species. The non- breeding egret has a yellow beak which is shorter than the beaks of the other herons. The legs are also yellow. The similar snowy egret has black legs and yellow feet. Notice that the chin feathers extend over onto the bottom of the beak.
Birders like to see the cattle egret in the breeding plumage. They are quite a handsome bird. They have creamy orange feathers peaked on their head into a crest and orange down into the chest area. This coloring reminds me of a creamsicle. During breeding, the beak and legs turn a deep red-orange color, and the lores turn purple.
Most herons are wading birds, but cattle egrets prefer to stay on land. Animals grazing in a meadow will unintentionally scare insects from their hiding places. That’s why you’ll often spot dozens and dozens of egrets feeding around cattle and horses. You may also see them in agricultural fields, especially after fields are plowed. The tractors also disturb insects, amking them easy pickings for the egrets.
On our ride through the backcountry of Central Florida, we saw thousands of cattle egrets. It was probably the most I have ever seen on one trip. One field looked like there had been a snowstorm.
This species has undergone the most widespread range expansion of any bird. Originally it was native to tropical Africa, Spain and Portugal. It made its way to North America in the early 1940s, possibly arriving with tropical weather blowing off the African coast.
Such accidental migrations surely had happened before, but this time, the birds found open grassland and large grazers. Cattle ranching had changed Florida, and it was enough like home that they could do more than just eke out a living — they could multiply into huge flocks.
Cattle egrets nest in colonies and are often seen sharing nesting communities with other egret and heron species. They usually nest in trees or bushes and prefer to be near a large body of water. The nest is a sloppy creation of twigs, reminding us of an osprey nest (but on a much smaller scale, of course).
The clutch size is two to four eggs, and both parents share in incubation. Babies hatch in two weeks, and in another several weeks they can be fully feathered. However, they cannot take care of themselves yet. It will take 45 days until they will be self-sufficient.
Egrets are not picky feeders and have a variety of delicious food items on their menu: Crickets, spiders, frogs, worms, lizards, mice, etc. They also eat ticks and flies that infest herds of cattle grazing in the fields, which is beneficial.
As we passed field after field of livestock grazing and cattle egrets chasing down dinner, we were also getting hungry. On the road, we make it a point to eat at small-town diners and usually get a bit of town history. It was Sunday and we found a little diner — Colee’s Restaurant in Palatka — that was still serving breakfast. We put on our masks and we were seated immediately.
It was fun to find out that our eggs and crispy perfectly cooked bacon were from the farms in the area. The restaurant even makes its own bread from locally sourced ingredients. Our friendly waitress, a native Floridian, gave us some history and description of this very old little town on the St. Johns River.
We were enjoying our meal and conversation. But we needed to get moving, as we still had hours of driving ahead of us. Trips through backcountry roads are always fun, and we’re happy to be able to go out and do a little birdwatching — even if it is through the car windows.
Abbie Banks is a member of the Venice Area Birding Association, a group of folks who want to enjoy the environment and nature without the cumbersome politics of an organized group. For more info on VABA or to be notified of upcoming birding trips, visit AbbiesWorld.org/references.html or email her at Amberina@aol.com.