A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Most likely to be seen alone, standing stock still in a wet field or at the edge of a pond, neck outstretched, waiting for something tasty to happen by. Egrets, like herons, are communal roosters and nesters, however, and during nesting season (March to early June) they will be up in trees raising chicks along with other egrets and herons. Santa Rosa's Ninth St. Rookery is the site of dozens of nests each year--nests of Great Egret, Snowy Egret (Egretta thula), Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis), and Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax). Otherwise, frequents marshy areas, estuaries, fresh and brackish water most anywhere. Common in wet fields, sometimes in highway median strips. May be seen foraging with other birds, including the smaller Snowy Egret. Besides the Ninth St. Rookery, nests in trees behind Spud Point Crab Company, Bodega Bay, and elsewhere in the county.

May be confused with Snowy egret--a more compact bird with a crest, a shorter neck, and a different combination of bill and foot color (photo below). Great Egret is a tall, all-white bird with a very long neck; clear yellow, dagger-like bill; and all-black legs. The head shows no signs of a crest (although wind-ruffled head feathers may suggest a false crest). In breeding plumage (photos below), the upper mandible turns blackish, the skin around and in front of the eye (behind the bill) turns bright chartreuse, and the birds sport extra plumes that are long, feathery, and--unfortunately for this species--highly decorative; demand for breeding plumes nearly led to the extinction of Great Egret (and Snowy Egret) in the early 20th century because they were prized for use in decorating fancy women's hats. The National Audubon Society was founded in response to mass killings of birds in general, but especially egrets (the Society's logo bears an image of a Great Egret to this day).

Snowy Egret is also an all-white wading bird, but it has a different silhouette (a shorter neck and a crest that is most conspicuous during breeding season); a black bill; and black legs with strikingly yellow feet (unfortunately, the yellow feet are frequently hidden underwater; see photo below for comparison). Great Egret may fly short distances with its neck outstretched, as in the silhouette here, but typically flies with its neck pulled back, bulging out below, its feet stretched out behind. In flight, Snowy Egret's neck usually appears neatly tucked in.

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 24

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, pp. 21, 147

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 31

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 112

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 114

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 130-131

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 40

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 62

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 106

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 154

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 49, 186, 187

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 59-61

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 19

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 48

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 86

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 112

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 57

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 126

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 94

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Great Egret




© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Great Egrets in high breeding plumage, Ninth St. Rookery, Santa Rosa, April 16, 2011

Note the chartreuse patch around and in front of the eye and the long feathery plumes

hanging from the bird's back

Great Egrets showing breeding plumes

Ninth St. Rookery, Santa Rosa, April 16, 2011

For comparison: Snowy Egret

Shollenberger Park, October 24, 2009

Note: Crest feathers, shorter neck, black bill, yellow feet

Great Egret

Typical hunting posture

Great Egret, Place to Play Park, Santa Rosa, January 16, 2013

Great Egret

Ardea alba

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated June 3, 2013

Reported occurrence in Sonoma County