The Waders

Great Blue Heron and Snowy Egret with Golden Slippers, photos by Tom Grey
Great Blue Heron and Snowy Egret with Golden Slippers, photos by Tom Grey

Several types of wading birds can regularly be seen in Oakmont – often standing motionless around the water features on the golf courses or by the creeks that run through the village. All of these long-necked, long-legged birds hunt by stalking fish, frogs, crayfish, and the like, shooting out their necks at lightning speed to grab their prey.

The largest of the waders is the Great Blue Heron. An impressive bird, it stands around 4 feet (but only weighs 5 or 6 pounds, thanks to its hollow bones). Blue-grey feathers cover this heron’s body, and its head is white with a dark “eyebrow” stripe that extends into a black plume coming off its crown. There’s not much chance of mistaking it for any other bird. The Great Blue is a solitary hunter, so you’re unlikely to see more than one at a time.

Only slightly smaller than the Great Blue Heron is the Great Egret. This tall, thin bird has solid white plumage, so the two are easy to tell apart. The Great Egret has a yellow bill and black legs and feet. These birds will sometimes congregate in small groups, not necessarily hunting cooperatively but at least tolerating each other’s presence.

Both Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets are big enough to eat gophers and ground squirrels. They stand poised like statues in grassy fields, staring intently at burrow entrances as they wait for a meal to emerge. Swallowing a furry gopher whole is not easy, but they manage.

The smaller Snowy Egret, which stands about 2 feet, also has solid white plumage, making it appear to be a miniature version of the Great Egret. Fortunately, there are key differences that make identification easier when you aren’t seeing them side by side. The Snowy Egret has a black bill (not yellow like the Great Egret) and bright yellow feet – often called its golden slippers. Watch a Snowy wading in the water for a while, and you’ll see it using one foot to vigorously stir up the mud. This is apparently done to encourage potential prey to move, so the Snowy can snap it up.

We also have the smallest heron – the Green Heron – in Oakmont, but it is less common. If you want to look for one, try along the banks of the “moat” that surrounds the Wild Oak swimming pool, visible from Timber Springs Drive. The Green Heron is short (16 inches or less) and stocky, often appearing hunched over, with brown and green plumage and yellow legs.

Herons and egrets roost overnight in trees. Spring Lake Park is a preferred roosting spot. You can see them as the sun rises – especially the Great Egrets – flying slowly and gracefully down from the park over our golf course fairways, and then returning to Spring Lake in the evening.

Like birds and bird watching? Join the Oakmont Birders mailing list by contacting bkendrick@jps.net. Share what you’re seeing. Hear about occasional bird walks. Questions about birds? Want a “Birds Seen in Oakmont” checklist? Send an e-mail.

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