Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Cattle Egrets Visiting New England
November 05, 2021
By Steve Grinley
Last Saturday, Marge Watson of Georgetown discovered a cattle egret at the Artichoke Dairy Farm on Rogers Street in West Newbury. Cattle egrets are a small, stocky bird compared to our common, and more elegant, snowy egrets and great egrets. Our common egrets prefer marshes and other wet areas, whereas the cattle egrets, as their name suggest, hang out with livestock that attract insects off which these egrets feed.
If you travel to Florida, cattle egrets are more common there. They are the ones you see in fields, feeding along backroads and even the median strips of some highways. They expanded their range northward decades ago, but they have since receded back to the southern states. They are now a rare visitor to New England, mostly in the spring, but sometimes in late Fall, when one or two birds might now be reported.
Margo and I went to Rogers Street after reading Marge’s report, but apparently the cattle egret was last seen flying north over the road. We decided to scout the area further and drove to the Garden Street end. Turning up Garden Street, Margo spotted the egret on the mowed grass of one of the first houses on the left. Margo shot a couple of photos before it flew up into a bare tree next to the road. A man walking a dog flushed it and the bird flew south again.
The cattle egret eventually returned to the dairy farm a short time later. It continues to be seen there daily as of this writing. It can, and should be, viewed from the road as the farm is private property and the landowner doesn’t tolerate trespassers.
Another cattle egret was seen on Plum Island on Sunday, but only made a brief appearance there. Also on Sunday, Steve Mirick found 19 Cattle Egret at the Runnymede Farm/Lamprey Conservation Easement in North Hampton New Hampshire! Single birds have also been reported elsewhere in New Hampshire and Maine, as well as in Plymouth and Sterling, Massachusetts.
Steve Mirick’s discovery of 19 birds led him to do a bit of research on the cattle egret and he posted this report:
“I did really good with herons including finding the late Snowy Egret and a lingering Great Egret, and of course, the highlight being a grand total of 19 (!!!!) CATTLE EGRETS! For a second there, I wasn’t sure what country I was in!! The egrets were associating with some grazing cattle along Rt. 111 in North Hampton right by the side of the road. Part of conservation land, and part of the Runnymede Farm complex. Apparently they stuck around all day even though the cattle were removed from the pasture in the afternoon.
“I was certain that 19 MUST be a record high total for the State, but of course, I was wrong, and the truth is part of an interesting pattern of vagrancy and range expansion for this species. Thanks to “Keith & Fox” and “Birds of the World” for some of the information below:
“The Cattle Egret started its global domination when it somehow crossed from central Africa to north-coastal South America (possibly Guyana or Suriname) back in the late 1800’s and then began a range EXPLOSION in the Americas, stretching north and south. The species reached south to Tierra Del Fuego by 1977.
The first sighting in the United States came from Florida in 1941 (where it first nested in 1953) and then it EXPLODED into the United States, rapidly moving northward, especially on the east coast, and was first reported in Massachusetts in 1952 and then in New Hampshire in 1953! During the 1960’s and 1970’s the species continued to expand in the United States with the first nesting in Massachusetts in 1974 and in Maine in 1977. During this time period, a huge flock of 20 Cattle Egret were seen together in a farm field in Stratham!! This bested my total today by 1 bird!
“But curiously, and rather suddenly, the range expansion stopped and pulled back around the time I started birding! The species has now become much more rare and irregular since the mid 1980’s. Over the last 20 years, it is reported nearly (but not quite) annually, but rarely more than one or two records per year and rarely more than one or two birds are seen. My personal high count for NH prior to today was 3!!!!! Most records over the last 40 years come from late April into mid-May, or again in the late fall including many records (curiously) in November.
“The 19 today in North Hampton appear to be part of a regional “fall-out” of Cattle Egrets in the couple of days. In addition to the 19, one was seen today by Holly Bauer in Hampton, NH, and also there were 2 in Westport, MA, 1 on Plum Island, 1 in West Newbury, MA, 1 in Sanford, ME, and 1 in Hancock, ME.”