Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalists' Club         Southeastern Caribbean Bird Alert         Trinidad and Tobago Rare Bird Committee
'Mystery Egrets' (Egretta sp.)

     Egret #1
A                                                                                  B
C                                                          D
E: closeup of head
E                                                      E: closeup of 'foot'                       F
    Egret #2
closeup of head
How does one distinguish between dark feathers and dark grime (e.g., from oil) on feathers in white egrets/herons without capturing or killing them? These two egrets with dark markings were foraging with a mixed flock of waders including about 200 Snowy Egrets (E. thula) and a basic-plumaged Little Egret (E. garzetta) at the Caroni Rice Fields, Trinidad, 6 July 2002. Photos © by Floyd Hayes. A few months earlier Martyn Kenefick reported observing two suspected Snowy Egret × Little Blue Heron (E. caerulea) hybrids from the same locality and at another locality, but stated after viewing these photos that neither looked like these individuals.

Egret #1 appears to be slightly larger bodied than nearby Snowy Egrets with a longer, thicker neck and a longer, thicker (?) bill (photos A and B). It resembles an alternate-plumaged adult Little Egret with a long, lanceolate head plume (photos B-E), but appears to have widely scattered greyish feathers throughout the body--from the top of the head to the thighs, on both sides and even the throat--as in an intermediate-morph Western Reef-Heron (E. gularis). Note the pale yellow lores contrasting with the blackish bill (photos A-F), apparent paleness on the upper legs and a few pale patches on the blackish tarus (photo E), and the contrasting greenish feet (photo E). Could this be the New World's first intermediate-morph Western Reef-Heron (bill and legs too dark, head plume too long?), or merely a dirty Little Egret? Or is it a hybrid involving a Little Egret, Western Reef-Heron, Little Blue Heron or Tricolored Heron (E. tricolor)?

To view photos of a similar intermediate-morph Western Reef-Heron (
E. gularis schistacea) in Spain, click here (18 September 2000) and here (2 November 2000, with darker mantle; for higher resolution, click here). Note the fairly uniform pattern of light grey centres and white edges to the wing feathers, which could not possibly result from random soiling of the feathers. In contrast, the irregular pattern of the Trinidad 'mystery egret' suggests that it might be the result of soiling, but if so, how?

If the dark markings in Egret #1 are regarded as dark feathers, consider
Egret #2 which has fewer scattered dark markings, especially on the face. It resembles a Snowy Egret but the basal two-thirds of the bill seems unusually pale. However, other Snowy Egrets and a basic-plumaged Little Egret photographed at the same time had similar pale markings on the bill, presumably from the clay soils (to see photos, click here). Is it merely a dirty Snowy Egret (seems likely), or could it be a hybrid involving Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron or Tricolored Heron?

To see comments on these birds,
click here. Egret #1 is probably a soiled Little Egret and Egret #2 is probably a Snowy Egret with clay on the bill and slightly soiled plumage.

Those interested in looking at Western Reef-Heron photos might be surprised by the diversity in coloration of lores, bill and legs, and even bill shape:

   Italy (one bird):
   Egypt (each a different bird):
   South Africa (one bird):
   Locality not stated:

   Trinidad and Tobago:
   Spain (each different?):