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REDDISH EGRET (Egretta rufescens)

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Reddish egret picture
Family: Ardeidae

Order: Ciconiiformes

STATUS: Species of Special Concern

DESCRIPTION: A stocky heron of intermediate size (total length about 76 centimeters), smaller than the great egret (Casmerodius albus), distinctly larger and stouter than the little blue heron which it resembles in color, with a much heavier bill. Dimorphic, dark phase adults are deep reddish brown on the head and neck and slaty blue on the body; white phase birds are all white or may have grayish wingtips. Immatures of the dark phase are pale to dark gray throughout. Adults in breeding condition develop long plumes on the back, a shaggy mane of plumes on the head and neck, and garish soft part colors (bill black-tipped with bright pink base, lores violet, legs cobalt blue, feet black). At other times adults have a bicolor bill (dark tip, light base) and blackish legs and feet.

HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION: Almost entirely a coastal species nesting on mangrove islands and feeding in the surrounding shallows. Rarely seen in inland freshwater habitats even in extreme southern Florida. Breeds on the Gulf Coast of the United States in Texas, Louisiana, and southern Florida, south to the West Indies and Mexico. Generally a resident where it breeds; however, wanders widely, especially immatures. In Florida, nests in the Florida Keys, principally Florida Bay, and has nested recently at Hemp Key, Marco Island, Pine Island Sound, and Tampa Bay. Up to about 1890, it was much more abundant and widespread in Florida and nested north to Tampa Bay and the Cape Canaveral area. Now a rather uncommon species throughout its range. The Texas population, numbering in the low thousands, is the largest known. Florida birds number about 300.

The dark morph predominates strongly (90 percent or more) in the Texas and Florida populations. The white morph was apparently much more prevalent in Florida in the 1880s when it made up 12 to 20 percent of the central Gulf Coast population and almost the entire population that nested south of Cape Romano and on the east coast was white.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Nests individually or in small groups sometimes associated with rookeries of other species. Accounts suggest it was a more highly social nester when it was more common in Florida. Breeding can occur from December in south Florida through June at northern locations. Nests are rough platforms of sticks usually placed less than 3 meters above the ground or water in red mangroves. The clutch is 3 to 4 eggs.

Incubation lasts approximately 26 days Both sexes participate in nest-building, incubation and care of the young. Reddish egrets are extremely active feeders, using spread wings and rapid steps to secure their marine prey. Their diet consists mostly of small fish.

BASIS OF STATUS CLASSIFICATION: It appears that the Florida population of this species has never recovered from the impact of plume-hunting almost a century ago. It was virtually extirpated in the state by 1890, and, since the 1930s, it has increased much slower than other species under protection. In 1972 and 1973 the state classified the reddish egret as an "endangered" species. In 1979 the state re-classified the reddish egret under the new status category, "species of special concern". Currently, it is under consideration for federal listing under the Endangered Species Act but has not yet been listed. Despite recent encouraging signs (nesting in western Florida Bay and at several localities on the Gulf Coast) it remains a rare bird, vulnerable because it occupies a limited range.

HABITAT GUIDELINES: Protection of this species consists of providing an effective zone that buffers the nesting sites. This "buffer zone" may extend into upland habitat. The extent of these buffers is based on existing State and/or Federal guidelines, or reflect the recommendations of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

Any activity proposed within a buffer zone would be subject to review. Activities that could be allowed in the buffer zone would be those activities which would not have any long term detrimental impact on the nesting birds. The following would be considered when making this determination: (1) the type of activity or construction planned and its' long term impacts; (2) the nature of the natural community that makes up the buffer zone (does it provide a visual barrier for any proposed nesting activities?); and (3) the timing of the proposed construction (does it occur outside the nesting season?).

RECOMMENDATIONS: Most known nesting is within the Everglades National Park and the national wildlife refuges of the Lower Florida Keys and Gulf Coast. Nesting within these sanctuaries should be specially guarded against witless disturbance by boaters. Protection of major habitat outside sanctuaries should have high priority, particularly areas within the former Gulf Coast nesting range. The population size and general biology of reddish egrets in Florida are rather poorly known and need closer study.

REFERENCES:
Paul, R.T. 1996. Reddish Egret. Pp 281-294. In Rare and Endangered Biota of Florida.

Volume V. Birds. (J.A. Rodgers, Jr., H.W. Kale II, and H.T. Smith, eds.) University

Press of Florida, Gainesville, FL.

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