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Amazing Island Nature: What kind of waterbird?

If you spend a lot of time in the islands, eventually you notice the birds. From parrots to pelicans, the bird life can be just enchanting. Years ago, I thought bird watching was about as entertaining as taking a nap, but time, travel, and exposure to the incredible avian variety in the tropics has taught me to pay closer attention. Not long ago in Islamorada in the Florida Keys, Zickie and I spotted this handsome fellow:

(A handsome guy. Photo by Zickie Allgrove.)

My first query was the age-old question, at least if you've grown up in Florida: Is it an egret or a heron? The answer lies in the color of his (or her?) legs. The black legs in addition to the yellow beak mean that this one is an egret. If I'm not mistaken, it's a "white egret" or "great egret." (Write me a comment if you have other ideas. My expertise on egrets is limited.)

(Hanging around. Photo by Zickie Allgrove.)

When in doubt about the identity of one of these gorgeous creatures, I consult my handy "Tropical Water Birds" laminated card. (Confusingly, the Great Blue Heron/white form looks very, very similar, with a yellow beak but yellow legs.) You'll see these birds throughout the Sun Belt in the United States, not just in the islands. Even if they're fairly common, it still gives me a pause when I see one take flight and spread its broad wings.

(Strutting egret. Photo by fishhawk, Flickr.)

Speaking of wings, did you know that this egret's wingspan ranges from 52 to 67 inches? Yet these birds don't weigh very much, from a mere pound and a half to a little over three pounds.

(Waiting patiently. Photo by Kevin Cole, Flickr.)

In the late 1800s, egrets were killed off in huge numbers. Their beautiful plumes had become very popular decorations for ladies' hats. Thankfully, conservation efforts put a stop to the wholesale slaughter, and today egrets are thriving. As I was doing a tiny bit of research on egrets, I discovered they are members of the heron family. So, I suppose in a sense they are both egrets and herons.

They seem like miracles, with their long legs and the way their necks bend so flexibly, especially when they fly. Simply one more example of how stunning and astonishing nature can be, if we just take the time to stop and absorb it.

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