Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret

Have you ever seen something so incredible that it stops you in your tracks? I’m talking about the feeling of awing inspiration, the kind that leaves you basking in astonishment, curiosity, and enchantment. The kind that makes you scratch your head and ask, what the heck did I just see? That’s the best way to describe one of my most recent wildlife encounters where I humbly reveled in the presence of a few of the famed and very rare, Reddish Egrets (Egretta rufescens). The images I was able to capture through my lens were truly out of this world.

Up until now, I’ve always said that the Great Blue Heron was my favorite bird to photograph—but no longer! The Reddish Egret has swaggered and danced all the way to the number one spot. In the elegant world of herons, consider the Reddish Egret the debonair cousin. These birds are undoubtedly entertaining to watch with their unique jumping, long-stride sprints, and spinning around in shallow waters with their heads strategically tilted to one side. Typically found in salt water, these egrets forage for food by stirring up sediment, then raising and extending their wings in a canopy to shade underneath and better see their prey. With every hyperactive movement they don’t just emulate grandeur, they are the epitome of it. I’m telling you, to see them in action is something else!

As I mentioned, these stately egrets are exceptionally rare, with only about 1,500 – 2,000 breeding pairs currently living in North America. Knowing that, you can imagine my excitement when I was able to get them in my viewfinder—in the moment it was palpable.

Some Basic Information About Reddish Egrets

  • Scientific Name: Egretta rufescens
  • Order: Pelecaniformes
  • Family: Ardeidae (egrets, herons, and bitterns)
  • Conservation Status: Near threatened
  • Size & Wingspan: 2 ½ feet tall; 3 ½ to 4-foot wingspan
  • Lifespan: 12 years


The Reddish Egret has a very limited range, making them one of the rarest egrets on the continent. They are more distinctive than other egrets or herons, with powerful long blue to black legs, protracted necks, notable shaggy plumes—especially during breeding season—and a thick two-toned black and salmon-pink daggerlike beak. Reddish Egrets also have a pronounced ‘S’ shaped neck both at rest and when in flight. These noble avians stand at about two and a half feet tall with a wingspan of approximately 46 inches and weigh about two pounds. They aren’t the largest in their class of birds, but one could certainly argue they’re among the most beautiful.

Like herons, Reddish Egrets are wading birds. There are also two notable variations: a white morph and a dark morph—in this piece, I’ll be talking mainly about the latter. The dark morph is more common than its all-white counterpart, but illustrious and unique all the same.

Adult Dark Morph

Adult dark morphs are cloaked in steel gray bodies, wings, and tails with rust-colored necks and heads. Among these Reddish Egrets, there is typically a noticeable difference in shades which is believed to be seasonal. Several dark morphs have some white plumage either in random patches or matching flight feathers. Interestingly though, there are no reports of white morphs having any dark plumage at all.

In both morphs, their lores—the area from the front of the eyes to the base of the bill—are light pink and blue, enhanced even more by their golden yellow to dark reddish irises. During breeding season, the colors around their beaks can be so bright they’re almost fluorescent. Additionally, their neck and head plumage turn to a cinnamon-chestnut color and nearly half their outer bill becomes a shiny black while the rest illuminates a bright pink. It’s magnificent!

Mated pairs can be with the same or a different colored morph and their hatchlings can include one or both. Whatever morph they’re born as—dark or white—they will remain that color for life.

Immature Dark Morph

Immature Reddish Egrets are fairly unremarkable in color, usually a paler shade of gray with rusty plumage all over. Their bills and legs are a steely gray adorned with white irises.


Once hunted for its feathers to the point of near extinction, the Reddish Egret is strictly a coastal bird, native to Central and South Florida. Only after the Migratory Bird Act of 1918 was passed, did their population start to recover.

Reddish Egrets tend to live in shallow coastal lagoons around barrier islands, mangroves, tidal flats, marshes, swamps, and keys and are rarely spotted inland. With that being said, their population is still declining thanks mainly to dredge-and-fill activities of their wetland habitats.

Behavior and Feeding

The Reddish Egret not only lives in shallow coastal waters off Florida, but they also feed there by actively looking for minnow-like fish, frogs, and other small crustaceans. It’s much more animated than other birds, distinctive even from great distances. It’s vital that they live close to where they feed, which helps to explain why they seem to be limited to the lower Florida coasts.

During their hunt for food, Reddish Egrets pounce in flight or by gallantly racing back and forth, spreading, and flapping their wings to shade and attract potential prey; this agitates the fish below, allowing them to be herded closer toward land. As if that weren’t amusing enough, they do it all with their heads cocked sideways to keep one eye locked on the prize—their unsuspecting next meal. On occasion, you can spot them hunting slowly like other egrets and herons do. After feeding, Reddish Egrets spit up the bones and other inedible parts of their prey, similar to owls.

The foraging behaviors of Reddish Egrets are nothing short of miraculous. These ostentatious harlequins love to put on a show when it comes to scouring for prey. So much so that during one of my latest encounters with a female Reddish Egret, I was pleasantly reminded of my days spent as a fashion runway photographer on the third floor of Bonwit Teller. It was almost as if she had a coat of wings draped over shoulders and then turned and shot me “the look”. Mesmerizing doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Nesting and Displays

Reddish Egrets live in large nesting colonies with other wading birds. Unlike some other birds in the heron family, the relationship between male and female Reddish Egrets tends to be monogamous, initiated with elaborate courting rituals.

Males start by choosing a possible nest site and putting on displays to attract a mate. These displays consist of neck stretching and raising his head and neck feathers. Both sexes make soft noises by rapidly opening and closing their bills—generally when welcoming one another back to the nest site, but they continue through the chick-rearing process if they consider each other a match.

Once an interested female is ready to commit, the male egret customarily begins a “head-toss” display that the female often affectionately reciprocates, or he shifts his head from left to right and loudly snaps his beak together. Then, one or both partners fly circularly around the nesting spot, even pursuing one another while in brief flight, sometimes “leapfrogging” each other. It’s romantic, in a childhood-playground crush kind of way.

When building their new home, it’s an all-hands-on-deck kind of job and both the male and female gladly take part. They employ more bonding displays of bowing, stretching, and erecting their feathers. Usually, the male gathers small sticks, and the female plays architect, placing them where they need to be, but sometimes those roles are reversed—something I always find endearing.

Nests are a decent size, about 23 inches wide and nine inches tall, and usually flat and lined with moss and grass. Inadvertent conversationists, Reddish Egrets have even been known to use recycled nests, abandoned by other birds. They can be on the ground or in small bushes, but ideally, they rest high up in trees found in mangroves and almost always above water.

Mating pairs have one brood a season of three to six small pale turquoise eggs, no longer than 2.2 inches. Their incubation period lasts 21 to 36 days and hatchlings are ready to leave the nest in 28 to 35 days. Both the male and female help take care of their offspring.

Life Cycle

The average lifespan of a Reddish Egret is 12 years although there are reports of them living to be 22. The conservation status remains near threatened with a constantly decreasing population due to loss of natural habitats at the hands of land developers, an increase in human activities along the Central and South Florida coastline and deteriorating environmental conditions. I was privileged to be able to get the images you see here.

Reddish Egrets and South Florida Wildlife Photography

This particular series of images I was able to capture has been the climax of my time as a professional photographer. I have traveled throughout the U.S., shooting everything from politics to fashion, but nothing excites me as much as getting candid images of wildlife, particularly wild birds. They’ve taught me patience and given me an overwhelming sense of gratitude—each time I’m in their presence I learn something new, and no experience is ever the same. I’m beyond grateful to be able to share them with you and other likeminded wildlife photography lovers across the world.

For more images of my work with Reddish Egrets and other South Florida wildlife, visit the Dan Power Gallery.

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