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Bruce Mactavish: Celebrity egret chooses Spaniard’s Bay

The little egret shows off the two spaghetti-like head plumes as its runs across the water with it golden slippers.
The little egret shows off the two spaghetti-like head plumes as its runs across the water with it golden slippers. - Bruce Mactavish photo

When Lois Trickett was walking her dog along the Trailway at Spaniard’s Bay she was not expecting to see an egret. She did not know what kind of egret it was but she managed to get a couple of phone camera pictures as it flew from the edge of the water. Lois posted the pictures on the Newfoundland Birdwatching Group Facebook page Saturday night. The blurry pictures showed an egret with an apparently dark bill, which could mean it was something other than a great egret. These were around eastern Newfoundland in unprecedented numbers this spring. Looking for something to do on Sunday morning I decided getting a firm identification of that egret was my mission.

Upon arrival at the Spaniard’s Bay tidal estuary I scanned the area with binoculars. The area is extensive and always has lots of birds no matter what is the season. Today there were plenty of common terns, ring-billed gulls, black ducks and a couple of greater yellowlegs but no obvious egret. Egrets being white herons that feed in shallow waters in the open are usually easy to spot. Then I noticed a white bag in a tree at the far end of the cove from me. With binoculars I could not tell for sure if it was a living thing or just a plastic bag but I thought I saw it move. I set the spotting scope on it and was surprised to see that it was an egret and that it indeed did have a black bill. A snowy egret is a nice find in Newfoundland. But what about the head plumes to be sure? The thought had barely formed in my head when the breeze lifted two white spaghetti-like plumes from the back of its head. It was a hallelujah moment. Snowy egrets have bushy head plumes. The spaghetti plumes belong to its Eurasian cousin the little egret! The rarity value of this egret was just ratcheted up a mile high.

The normal home of the little egret is Europe, Asia and North Africa. It is a big rarity in North America. Newfoundland being the closest part of North American to Europe has 10 records of little egret, far more than any other state or province. The first was May 1954 at Flatrock, the most recent was May 2015 at Renews. There had also been a previous little egret in Spaniard’s Bay in spring 1983. Just when or how this one arrived we can only guess. How long will it stay? Well it has chosen an excellent location. The extensive and varied tidal flats provide plenty of space and excellent feeding opportunities for an egret. Since we are in between the spring and fall migration periods there is a good chance this bird will stay for a good while during the summer months.

The normal home of the little egret is Europe, Asia and North Africa. It is a big rarity in North America. Newfoundland being the closest part of North American to Europe has 10 records of little egret, far more than any other state or province.

The area is big enough that the egret should be able to find enough peace from the human audience to live well and hunt for small fish in the shallows. It was already being enjoyed by many people on the first two days of July. During high tides and at night egrets are likely to rest in trees and there are enough dense and extensive clumps of trees by the shoreline to provide that need.

The egret was observed catching small fish that were likely sticklebacks. It fed nonchalantly among the local ducks and gulls. The local birds have accepted its presence. It has a curious habit of shaking a foot under the water to stir critters out from hiding. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that its feet are yellow contrasting with the black legs.

The Spaniard’s Bay/Shearstown estuary is protected and under the watch of the local Joint Management Committee. It is a good place for birds and birdwatching. A big colony of ring-billed gulls nests along the outer beach. Among them both common and Arctic terns also nest. In the past we have wondered if black-headed gulls also nest here. This European gull is regular in Newfoundland in winter and few have nested in other parts of the province. There was a black-headed gull present this past weekend. An out of place Caspian tern was also there on Sunday. The tidal flats draw in lots of shorebirds during the southbound migration period of July to October. The first greater yellowlegs were there this weekend. Over the years some quite rare shorebirds have been found there notably a western sandpiper and a curlew sandpiper.

In winter bird watchers visit Spaniard’s Bay to look for ducks. Every winter there is one, sometimes two Barrow’s goldeneye present among the common goldeneye flocks. This is the only reliable location on the Avalon Peninsula to see this species. Among the wintering flock of black ducks there are usually some Eurasian wigeon.

Spaniard’s Bay is solidly on the birding map of Newfoundland.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca

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