A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

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


Snowy Egret

Egretta thula

Usually seen standing in streams or ponds, or near lake edges or other shallow water looking for prey. Tends to shuffle around trying to see what it can scare up. 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 this bird as well as Great Egret (Ardea alba), Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis), and Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax). May be seen foraging with other birds, including Great Egret. Besides the Ninth St. Rookery, nests in trees behind Spud Point Crab Company, Bodega Bay, and elsewhere in the county. In rookeries, Snowy Egret makes a very strange wubba-wubba-wubba sound. Otherwise, not a very vocal bird. 

May be confused with Great Egret--a larger, lankier bird with no crest, a longer neck, and a different combination of bill and foot color. Snowy Egret is a smallish, all-white wading bird with a long but stout-looking neck and a wispy crest (most conspicuous during breeding season); a black, comparatively slender bill; and black legs with strikingly golden yellow feet (unfortunately, these are frequently hidden underwater). The legs of younger birds will show yellow, particularly at the back of the lower legs. In breeding plumage, the skin around and in front of the eye, normally yellow, turns the color of cream of tomato soup (a creamy orange-red), the color of the feet shifts from bright yellow in the direction of orange. Birds acquire extra, frilly plumes that curve up from the back, the crest becomes more prominent, and breeding plumes appear at the base of the neck as well. In flight, Snowy Egret's neck usually appears neatly tucked in, while Great Egret typically flies with its neck pulled back, bulging out below. Both birds fly with feet stretched out behind. When looking for food, Great Egret is likely to be standing absolutely still, neck stretched out, watching for prey, while Snowy Egret is more active while hunting. Great Egret has a clear yellow, dagger-like bill; and all-black legs and feet. The head shows no signs of a crest (although wind-ruffled head feathers may suggest a false crest, and note that immature Snowy Egret lacks a crest too). In breeding plumage the upper mandible of Great Egret turns blackish, the skin around and in front of the eye (behind the bill) turns bright chartreuse, and the birds sport extra feathery plumes, like Snowy Egret. Demand for breeding plumes nearly led to the extinction of both Snowy Egret and Great 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).

Further reading: National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, pg. 112; Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  pg. 112; Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, pg. 86; Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, pg. 57; Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, pg. 24; The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, pg. 40; Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, pg. 48; Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, pg. 32.

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




© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011.

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.


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

Note the crest, the reddish skin around and in front of the eye (normally yellow), and the

long feathery plumes hanging from the bird's back and neck

Snowy Egret in flight, Bodega Bay.

Note the heavy neck, black bill, black legs, and yellow feet

An excellent view of the bright yellow feet,

often referred to as "golden slippers"

Snowy Egret in high breeding plumage showing: Full crest; long, up-curved breeding plumes on back; and breeding plumes at base of neck

For comparison: Cattle Egret in high breeding plumage. Note the heavy yellow bill and orange wash on head, back, and tail

For comparison: Great Egret. Note: Large size, lack of crest, very long neck, yellow bill, and black legs,