American Birding Podcast



The Cattle Egret Chronicles

In March of this year, I was blessed to have the opportunity to travel to and write about the birding in Beaumont, Texas, a magnificent meeting point of avifauna from the north, south, east, and west of the ABA Area. Within moments of arriving in one of Beaumont’s premier birding hotspots, Cattail Marsh, I had learned of a remarkable Cattle Egret known to live in the area: the electric blue Cattle Egret. After a fantastic afternoon of watching and photographing Cattail Marsh’s throngs of ducks and wading birds in the company of two of Beaumont’s top birders and photographers, I was soon lucky enough to be beholding the blue bird itself. With the help of my new friends and their experienced eyes, somewhere near the back of a flock of one hundred Cattle Egrets gliding past the observation deck in the fading light, I could make out one bird quite unlike the others.

This observation set off a chain of interpersonal interactions that has enriched my life and experience as a birder. When I mentioned the egret and the mystery of its, well, blueness, to Ted Floyd, our orientation turned toward solving the mystery through Birding magazine’s built-in and time-honored mechanism for explaining unsolved avian enigmas: we made it a Featured Photo and contacted Peter Pyle. As anyone familiar with Peter’s columns in Birding or his two-volume Identification Guide to North American Birds already knows, when a birding mystery and Peter Pyle square off, it’s best to bet on Peter. The blue Cattle Egret conundrum was no different, as readers of the June issue of Birding are already aware. And as added bonuses, the blue Cattle Egret piece was able to highlight the excellent photography work of my Beaumont hosts and yield a fun companion blog post.

The original mysterious blue Cattle Egret

After the publication of the blue Cattle Egret Featured Photo, I was extremely flattered to receive correspondence from Ray Telfair, a preeminent expert on Cattle Egrets in North America, who is currently revising his account of the species for Birds of North America. Ray wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Cattle Egret and has been the primary author of studies of the Cattle Egret’s dramatic expansion into Texas and beyond. He had enjoyed the article and told us of yet another instance of odd Cattle Egret coloration.

Meanwhile, Swarovski digiscoper of the year Tara Tanaka, upon seeing the Cattle Egret article herself, sent Ted Floyd photos of another Cattle Egret with unusual plumage circumstances: a male bird with a knot tied on its wing, which, owing in part to the excellence of Tara’s image, was soon slated as a sequel Featured Photo. But in that same email to Ted, Tara sent more incredible images of a Wood Duck that had both male and female characteristics, which was given the Pyle treatment and was soon enough another closed case and a memorable Featured Photo column. Not long after the printing of the second Cattle Egret article, we were able to correspond with Ray again, and we learned that the mysterious knot on the bird’s wing was a banding technique that has been obsolete for decades and is illegal.

The saga of the blue Cattle Egret and its ignition of a series of interesting interactions over the past several months was, in its way, an extremely unique experience. But in another way, I don’t think it was unique at all. As the world, including the birding world, becomes increasingly interconnected, our observations trigger otherwise improbable interactions that lead to new knowledge and memories. How many of us have, after only brief encounters in the field, made friends we now regularly keep in touch with? Or the opposite: after years of knowing and corresponding with someone exclusively through online channels, we one day find ourselves out in the field birding for the first time with someone we know so well.

Birds are many things to many different people. One of those things is a currency of communication, in constant circulation around the world. In the past seven months, I have gotten to know several really talented people because of a cool bird I saw for about twenty seconds. What could be more representative of not just the magic of birding, but of birders, than that?