Herons of The Turks and Caicos Islands
Story and Photos by Richard Ground
Herons occur throughout the Turks & Caicos Islands in every conceivable habitat. Reddish Egrets dance in the urban salinas of Grand Turk. Cattle Egrets can be found in dry pasture. Great Blues stalk the tidal flats; and Night-Herons haunt suburban gardens, where they keep down the population of destructive land crabs.
Although twelve species have been recorded in the Turks & Caicos, nine of them can be seen regularly and easily. This is a lot, and it is easy to forget that there are few places in the world that can boast such a variety and abundance of these large and stately birds. Indeed, to the visitor from Northern Europe, used to one or two species at most, it must seem quite startling.
The Reddish Egret is perhaps the loveliest and most distinctive of all the local herons. It is a large, solitary bird, which can often be seen dancing across the middle of a pond with its wings outstretched. This behaviour is purposive–the bird is doing it to herd together shoals of small fish so that they make an easier target–but it often has a decidedly drunken look to it. At other times this handsome bird stands motionless, poised ready to strike, exercising the infinite patience of its kind. The Reddish Egret is immediately distinguishable by its mane of shaggy auburn feathers, and the pink base to its bill. However, rather confusingly, it also has a strikingly beautiful all-white phase, but it can still be told apart from the other white herons by its shaggy crest and pink bill.
White herons can be a problem to tell apart. There are those which are always white–the Great Egret, the Snowy Egret and the Cattle Egret. Then there are those which are white some of the time–like the Reddish Egret and the juvenile Little Blue Heron. At first glance they all seem the same, but each has its own distinguishing characteristics which, with a little practice, will allow you to tell one from another.
The easiest is the Great Egret. It has black legs and a yellow bill, but its size alone identifies it. A big, white, Crane-like bird it is solitary and wary, flying off with a harsh, guttural croak when disturbed. They are winter visitors to the TCI, although a few stay year round. They do not breed here, so their wonderful nuptial plumage is rarely seen. It consists of elongated, decorative feathers for which the species was nearly hunted to extinction at the beginning of the last century–they were in great demand for ladies’ hats. Only a change in fashion saved the bird.
Once similarly threatened, Snowy Egrets are classic birds of the wetlands. They are invariably found wading in search of small fish and invertebrates. Smaller than their large cousins, they have long black beaks and legs, but their feet are a golden yellow, so that they seem to be wearing house-gloves.
The other really large heron is the Great Blue. It too can be identified by size alone. In Florida it has a white form, but that does not occur in the Turks & Caicos, which saves having to distinguish it from the Great Egret. The Little Blue Heron, on the other hand, does occur here in a white form–for the first year of life it is pure white, later turning through a mottled calico phase until it achieves the purplish blue of the adults. The juvenile can be told from the other white herons by its blue bill and greenish legs.
Of all the white herons, Cattle Egrets are the most familiar. They occur inland, in pastures, and unlike most of their relatives, eat insects and small vertebrates rather than fish. Usually seen following cattle and horses around, snapping up what they dislodge, they sometimes form large flocks, which make a spectacular sight as they wheel through the sunlight of late afternoon. Cattle Egrets can be distinguished from the other white herons by their yellow bills, and in the breeding season they have a tan wash on crest and breast. The surest way to identify them, however, is by habitat and life-style–if it is sitting on the back of a cow it is not a Snowy Egret!
Perhaps the commonest heron, however, is the Tricolored or Louisiana Heron–blue and white, with a long, snake-like neck, it stalks small minnow round the edges of ponds and salinas. Those which inhabit the Town Salina on Grand Turk have become astonishingly accustomed to humans, and they fish right besides the road or walk along the footpaths as if they owned the place, which in a sense they do.
Much warier is the Green Heron–the smallest of the West Indian herons. It is a secretive bird, skulking in the undergrowth and often only betraying its presence by its scolding cry when disturbed. It may then be seen flying up into the trees, its neck outstretched and its dark crest erect in indignation.
Then finally there are the Night-Herons. The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron is a year round breeding resident in the TCI. A stocky gray heron with a handsome black and white head, like a badger, it makes a living catching crabs. It especially likes land crabs, and will even dig into their burrows to catch them. Although primarily nocturnal it does sometimes hunt in the day, and can be found quietly stalking through the dry bush looking for a meal.
It is worth getting to know the herons of the Turks & Caicos Islands. Each is special in its own way, and they bring great variety and interest to the avian landscape. They also possess a stately beauty, and because of their life-styles and habitats, tend to be easier to see and admire than many other, flightier birds.
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Marta Morton, owner of Harbour Club Villas, shot this photo on the magical island of Salt Cay. The foreground is filled with the endemic National Flower Turks & Caicos Heather in full bloom. St. John's Anglican Church, built in the early 1800s, is in the background. To see more of her work, visit www.myturksandcaicosblog.com