A note about the photos – for the past five years I have been photographing and filming the Cormorants massing. The photos are from 2016 – 2019, and most recently, from 2020. Some of the earliest ones were taken at Niles Beach in 2017. In 2018, my friend Nina wrote to say that the massing also takes place in her neighborhood on the Annisquam River. Several weeks ago, while hiking on the backside of Sandy Point, facing the Ipswich Yacht Club, the Cormorants were massing there, too. Please write if you have seen this spectacular event taking place in your neighborhood. Thank you so much!
Massing in great numbers as they gather at this time of year, Double Crested Cormorants, along with many species of gulls and herons, are benefitting from the tremendous numbers of minnows that are currently present all around the shores of Cape Ann.
At inlets on the Annisquam and Essex Rivers, as well as the inner Harbor and Brace Cove, you can see great gulps of Cormorants. In unison, they push the minnows to shore, where gulls and herons are hungrily waiting. The fish try to swim back out toward open water but the equally as hungry Cormorants have formed a barrier. From an onlooker’s point of view, it looks like utter mayhem with dramatic splashing, diving, and devouring. In many of the photos, you can see that the birds are indeed catching fish.
The Double-crested Cormorants are driving the feeding frenzy. I have seen this symbiotic feeding with individual pairs of DCCormorants and Snowy Egrets at our waterways during the summer, but only see this extraordinary massing of gulls, herons, and cormorants at this time of year, in late summer and early autumn.
Cormorants catch fish by diving from the surface, chasing their prey under water and seizing it with the hooked bill.
Double-crested Cormorants are ubiquitous. When compared to Great Cormorants, DCCormorants are a true North American species and breed, winter over, and migrate along the shores of Cape Ann.
After feeding, the herons often find a quiet place to preen before heading back in the late afternoon to their overnight roosting grounds.
Double-crested Cormomrant range map
Quietly slipping through the shallow creek water, the graceful Snowy Egret would stop every now and then to shake its leg. Stirring up the sandy flat in hopes of awakening a sleeping crab or fish, the elegant bird would then violently pierce the water with its dagger like beak, more often than not coming up empty billed.
Watching the brilliant yellow-footed Snowy Egret foraging at the creek for diner I was reminded of how Piping Plovers have a similar foraging technique, pattering their (much smaller) feet, also in hopes of disturbing unsuspecting prey.
Snowy Egrets are sometimes described as piscivorous (a diet that consist largely of fish), however they eat a wide variety aquatic foods such as jellyfish, crustaceans, mollusks, and aquatic insects. Ospreys are a better example of a piscivorous bird species.
The bird in the photos above is in full breeding plumage. Their stunning aigrettes are the reason they were nearly brought to extinction by plume hunters, and one of the main reasons for the creation and passing of the century old Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
How to tell the difference between a Showy Egret and Great Egret: Snowy Egrets have yellow feet and black bills, while Great Egrets have yellow bills and black feet. As the name suggests, Great Egrets are the larger of the two. Great Egrets
A grand Great Egret has been hanging out at the Good Harbor Beach marsh. He has been dining on small fish mostly. The photos are from Sunday but I didn’t spot him either yesterday or today; perhaps he has moved on.
Cape Ann is part of the Great Egrets breeding range, particularly House Island. This Egret is in full breeding plumage, advertising to a potential mate how fit and desirable he is to other Great Egrets. These same beautiful feathers, and humanity’s indiscriminate killing of, are what caused the bird to become nearly extinct. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the long breeding plumes, called aigrettes, of many species of herons and egrets were prized as fashion accessories to adorn women’s hats. Thanks to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, it is illegal to hunt or harm in any way gorgeous birds such as the Great Egret, and egrets and herons are making a comeback.
The Great Egret doing the happy dance was fishing with a group of mixed herons and egrets when he began to leap about and flourish his wings. I couldn’t tell why from the distance I was shooting until returning to my office to look at the photos and saw he had a minnow in his mouth. What a show-off!
Don’t mess with these bad boys!
In no uncertain terms
Tussles over turf pop up regularly between the egrets and herons feeding in the marsh. They often conglomerate in one small area to fish for minnows, occasionally steeling a catch from one another, and there is always one who seems to be the big kahuna of the marsh.
Often asked this question, I thought it would be helpful to post the answer again, especially at this time of year when we see numerous numbers foraging in our marshes and along the shore. Both species of birds breed on Cape Ann and the coast of Massachusetts.
The first clue is size. Snowy Egrets are small, about the size of the Mallard Duck. Remember the letter S for small and snowy. Great Egrets are much larger, nearly identical in size to that of the Great Blue Heron.
Great Egret (Ardea alba)
Great Egrets have black feet and yellow bills. Snowy Egrets have reverse coloring, yellow feet and black bills.
Great Egrets stand very still while fishing. Snowy Egrets are wonderfully animated when foraging; they run quickly, walk determinedly, fly, and swish their feet around to stir up fish.
The magnificent Great Egret was very nearly hunted to extinction during the “Plume Bloom” of the early 20th century. Startling, cumbersome, and hideous, hats were fashioned with every manner of beautiful bird feather. Europeans were partial to exotic birds that were hunted the world over and they included hummingbirds, toucans, birds of paradise, the condor, and emu. The American milinery trade favored herons for their natural abundance. The atrocities committed by the murderous millinery led to the formation of the first Audubon and conservation societies however, what truly led to saving the birds from extinction was the boyish bob and other short hairstyles introduced in about 1913. The short cuts could not support the hat extravaganzas, which led to the popularity of the cloche and the demise of the plume-hunters.
A quick and easy reference on how tell the difference between the Snowy and Great Egrets, both white and both often times found feeding in the marsh and tide pools together: The Great Egret is greater in size and has a bright yellow bill, with black legs and black feet. The smaller Snowy Egret has the opposite markings, with unmistakeable cadmium yellow feet and a black bill.
In the above photo taken this morning, the egrets were too far away for my camera’s lens to get a really clear picture however, when cropped, you can see a side-by-side comparison. The Snowy Egret, with black bill and bright yellow feet, is flying in the background and the Great Egret, with black feet and yellow bill, is perched in the foreground.
More posts about Great Egret and Snowy Egrets: BIRDS OF CAPE ANN: GREAT EGRET VS. GREAT EGRET BEAUTIFUL GOOD HARBOR FOGGY MORNING SUNRISE, SNOWY EGRET, AND WHIMBRELS
On a gorgeous dawn this past season I filmed an epic battle between two, possibly three, Great Egrets at the Good Harbor Beach marsh. The battle lasted nearly ten minutes with the defending egret aggressively flying lower and beneath the intruder, preventing it from landing anywhere on the marsh.
Great Egrets have very interesting breeding behavior in that the male selects the nesting site and builds a platform nest of sticks and twigs in a tree, shrub, or on the ground near a marsh, prior to selecting a mate. Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the chicks, and both male and female vigorously defend the nesting territory. Perhaps that is what I had observed, a male and/or female defending their nesting site.
The Good Harbor Beach victor first surveyed the marsh from his perch on the adjacent cottage and, after determining his foe was defeated, swooped to the tide pool below to feed peaceably alonsgide the Great Blue Heron.
How do you tell the difference quickly between a Great Egret and Snowy Egret? If you saw the two species side-by-side it would be easy as the Great Egret is nearly a third as large as the Snowy Egret. I don’t often see them together so the easiest way for me to tell them apart is to remember that the smaller Snowy Egret has brilliant cadmium yellow feet and a black bill. The Great Egret has black feet and a yellow-orange bill.