The bird was tall, long-legged, long-necked, and long-billed, and at first glance, from a distance, I assumed it was a Great Blue Heron. I might have dismissed it and moved on, except for one thing: it wasn’t behaving like any Great Blue I’ve ever seen. Great Blues are as stately as they are statuesque; when they move, they do it with enormous elegance and grace.
This bird was … well, the opposite of that. Standing in the shallow water at the edge of a tidal pool, it lurched into a clumsy, splashing sprint along the shoreline. It paused for a moment and peered into the water. Then it lifted its wings like Dracula raising his cape and hop-staggered another few jerky steps back the way it had come.
Through the binoculars, this bird wasn’t colored like any GBH I’d ever seen, either. Great Blues are largely grayish-blue, but they have a lot of contrasting parts: that broad black swath above the eyes bordered by bright white crown and cheeks; the bold black shoulder patch; the white throat edged with black dashes.
By contrast, this bird had no contrast. It was a nearly uniform pale gray, from top to tail. No crest, no eyeline, no patches, no streaks or stripes. It looked like a Great Blue Heron covered in volcanic ash.
There are only a few species of herons and egrets that you typically see in North Carolina, and this guy didn’t look — or act — like any of them. Could it maybe be a young GBH, I wondered, still gangly and awkward and learning to hunt?
The bird was in one of the saltwater pools linked by channels that run like a maze through the expanse of marshes at the north end of Wrightsville Beach. When it stood still, it was as refined and exquisite as any Great Blue Heron or Great Egret. Then it would launch into a series of bizarre moves: leaping, running, raising one or both wings, teetering and tilting and stutter-stepping like a man trying to keep his footing on the deck of a heaving ship. Occasionally it made an abrupt stab at the water with its bill. It was an uninhibited and oddly endearing spectacle.
But I still didn’t know what the bird was. I hadn’t brought a field guide to our rental house on Wrightsville, and the one the owners had left for guests was an old Audubon guide that didn’t show anything like this bird. I posted a photo online, and within about half an hour a consensus came back: immature Reddish Egret.
Although I’d never seen a Reddish Egret in person, I know what adults look like: rich gray back and brick-red neck and head adorned with beautiful shaggy plumes. But immature birds, it turns out, look just like mine: overall soft gray — “chalky” is the perfect word that David Sibley uses — with greenish legs and startling, pale eyes.
Reddish Egrets are North America’s rarest resident member of the heron and egret family. They’ve recovered since nearly being wiped out by plume hunters in the late 1800s, but they’re still far from numerous, with probably fewer than 5,000 birds in all of North America. Aside from the occasional lost soul who goes astray and winds up in Iowa or Wyoming (in birding terminology, these are “vagrants,” which always sounds to me vaguely disreputable), they are found in the U.S. almost exclusively along the shorelines of the Gulf Coast states.
North Carolina is about as far north as any Reddish Egrets are seen annually; every year, a few individuals show up on our coast. From what I could glean on eBird, my report was only the third recorded in the state this year; two earlier reports came from further north, near Ocracoke.
So this was a good bird. (To paraphrase George Orwell, all birds are good, but some birds are more good than others). It was certainly the best bird I’ve ever found. Much later that day, as we sat on the deck looking out over the emerald-and-blue vista of grass and water, I spotted it again, deeper in the marsh. I handed the binoculars to Anne, who tolerates but does not share my passion for birding. “That’s the goofiest bird I’ve ever seen,” she said after a few minutes. “I love it!”
Its animated feeding behavior — all that running and flapping and lurching — turns out to be characteristic of the species. It’s often referred to as the “dance” of the Reddish Egret, which at first struck me as an overly generous use of word “dance.” (Watching the bird that first morning, I didn’t think, “It’s dancing!” I thought, “Is that bird drunk?”)
Two days later I took a kayak out into the marsh. It was early evening. As I made my way up a reed-lined channel, I came to an opening off to my left, and there, in another tidal pool, was a pale, long-legged wading bird. It stood regally for a moment. Then it hoisted one wing and took off at a run like a scrawny ostrich. Yep, I thought. That’s my bird. It splashed to a stop and hunched over in a crouch to peer into the water, wings canopied over its head like an umbrella.
As I drifted in the kayak, I wondered at all these flaky tactics. To my eyes, it looked like a terribly labor-intensive and inefficient — if thoroughly charming — way to hunt. But somehow, it works. If it didn’t work, we wouldn’t have Reddish Egrets. Evolution comes up with some crazy stuff, I thought.
Then I paddled closer and sat for a good long while in the shallows as the light faded, watching the egret dance.