posted August 6th, 2011; last edited August 7th, 2011 –– David Sibley

Little Egret Egretta garzetta

Snowy Egret (top) and Little Egret (bottom) showing typical head plumes. An enlarged image of a single plume from each species is shown to the left. Pencil sketch copyright David Sibley.

Status

Common in Eurasia; a very rare visitor to eastern North America with about 15 records along the Atlantic Coast; from Delaware to Newfoundland in May to September.

Identification

To find a Little Egret among Snowy Egrets: Look for long dangling head plumes (which all adult Little Egrets have, except when molting in fall, and all Snowy Egrets lack, (except for possible hybrids). Look for dark gray lores which will make the bill seem even longer; but not all Little Egrets have gray lores, so you will be likely to miss a few if you a just looking at lore color, and some very young Snowy Egrets have dark gray lores, so you will have a few false alarms.
Seeing one or even both of those things is not enough to claim a record of Little Egret. You must have long and clear views. You should determine the age of the bird, check for some subtle supporting clues, and rule out several other rare possibilities.

Closest relatives

Snowy Egret
Western Reef-Heron

Other similar species

Little Blue Heron (immature)
Reddish Egret (white morph)
Cattle Egret (some immatures)

Little Egret vs. Snowy Egret

Only head plumes provide a clear and objective distinction between the species, other features are more subtle, variable and overlapping.

  • two very long lanceolate plumes on crown, all other feathers short and “normal” in shape (vs. many lacy plumes forming a short bushy “crest” with individual feathers difficult to distinguish)

A Little Egret might also show more “stringy” breast plumes, slightly larger overall size and relatively heavier and longer bill, paler yellow iris, drabber facial skin, less extensive and drabber yellow on the feet, etc. But these are all subtle and overlapping. Follow the In depth links to read more.

In depth

Differences in plumes between Little and Snowy Egrets
Finding and identifying a Little Egret Among Snowy Egrets

ID Pitfall:

Some juvenile Snowy Egrets have dark gray facial skin like typical Little Egret
Several of these birds have generated considerable discussion, for example from Pennsylvania in 2008, and Texas in 1997 with an eventual consensus that they were most likely juvenile Snowy Egrets.

A large percentage of Snowy Egret nestlings have blackish to gray bills and lores, while others have yellowish bills and lores. I have seen a few dark-lored juvenile Snowy Egrets from late July to late September, in the eastern US as well as California. The loral color of these birds was dark neutral gray to greenish-gray. They were all obviously recently-fledged, still retaining traces of down on close inspection. Clearly a few individuals retain the gray lores at least briefly after fledging, so it should be expected that a range of gray-green colors would be encountered.

A critical first step in identifying these birds is determining their age (see below). If the bird is a juvenile, then dark gray loral color does not rule out Snowy Egret, and in fact it may be impossible to identify such birds in the field. If an egret with gray lores can be confirmed as an adult then that is a strong indicator that it is a Little Egret.

ID Pitfall:

Some apparent hybrid Little X Snowy Egrets have long head plumes like Little
These birds look like more or less typical Snowy Egrets except for a couple of very long head plumes. They may be hybrids, or they may be exceptional variants of Snowy Egret, either way they are an identification problem. Follow the In depth link for more discussion.

In depth

Possible hybrid Little X Snowy Egrets

ID Pitfall:

Some immature Little Blue Herons show short but obvious plumes on the back of the head and have gray facial skin like typical Little Egret
Several of these individuals have caused confusion in October to January. The plumes are shorter than typical adult Little Egret, and the bird should be readily identified by leg color, posture, and other clues. All of the features that distinguish immature Little Blue Heron from Snowy Egret will work here as well. (An interesting comparison of very young juvenile Little Blue from Texas with Little Egret from England)

  • distinctive foraging posture
  • relatively thick bill (vs. Little Egret bill averages thinner and longer than Snowy)
  • pale pea-green legs without black (vs. Little Egret legs mostly black even on young juveniles)
  • base of bill mostly pale gray to yellowish (vs. upper mandible blackish on Little Egret)
  • lores pale greenish-yellow (vs usually grayish on Little Egret)
  • narrow gray tips on outer primaries are diagnostic if visible, but may be very small and hard to see (vs primaries entirely white on Little Egret)
ID Pitfall:

Some juvenile Cattle Egrets have dark gray facial skin and dark bill like typical Little Egret
These occasional dark-billed juvenile Cattle Egrets appear in August to November, and should be easily identified by overall size and shape, as well as their upland habitat.

Age and seasonal Variation

Plumage is always white, the only age-related and seasonal variation is in the presence or absence of ornamental plumes, and the color of bare parts.
Plumes: Adults grow ornamental plumes once each year on head, breast, and back. These plumes grow slowly between January and March, become somewhat ragged by July-August, and fall out sometime in August-October. In other words plumes are in their full glory in March-June, and can be missing anytime from August to January.
Bare parts of adults begin to brighten in January, reaching a peak of intense brightness in actively courting birds briefly in March-May, then fade slowly through the summer. Snowy Egret shows a matching cycle of color changes.

Juvenile vs adult in fall:

  • plumage smooth and fresh with no sign of molt or old plumes, all feathers short and rounded creating scaly pattern in ideal conditions (vs. plumage somewhat ragged and uneven, with some worn and stained old plumes on breast and/or back, most feathers longer and more pointed, never showing scaly pattern)
  • crown may appear more rounded, and the youngest birds may still have tiny tufts of down (vs. crown flatter, head more angular)
  • bare parts more uniformly colored and drabber, with less black overall (vs. bare parts more contrastingly colored, with average more black, less green, and brighter yellow)

Immature (one-year-old) vs. adult in spring:

  • few or no ornamental plumes (vs obvious plumes on head, breast, and back)
  • bare parts retain nonbreeding colors: pale gray base of lower mandible, pale gray lores, some green on legs (vs. bill all black, lores gray to yellow to red, legs all black contrasting with yellow feet)

Geographic Variation

All North American records presumably originate from the western European and African populations Egretta garzetta garzetta. Asian populations may differ slightly in size and or bare parts colors, and could potentially wander to North America, but would not be safely identifiable.Another subspecies is found in Australia.

Rare plumage variations

Whether or not Little Egret has a rare dark morph is under debate. A few individuals identified as such in southern Europe and western Africa may have been Western Reef-Herons, or hybrids between Little Egret and Western Reef-Heron. Importantly, DNA evidence suggests that Little Egret and the western African populations of Western Reef-Heron Egretta gularis gularis are so closely related they could be the same species, and morphologically there is little to refute that idea. In that case Western Reef-Heron is simply a southern population of Little Egret, which is predominantly dark morph.

Hybrids

Little X Snowy Egret – A mixed pair of Little and Snowy Egrets has been observed on Barbados and at least two apparent hybrids with Snowy Egret have been photographed in the northeastern US.
Little X Cattle Egret – A possible hybrid Little X Cattle Egret was photographed in Sarzeau, France on 21 May 2008 (photos and discussion)

In depth:

Possible hybrid Little X Snowy Egrets

1 comment to Little Egret

  • David,
    Perhaps this is not the right place to raise this mater, but here you imply the Conventional Wisdom that the plumage of Snowy Egret is always white. I recently have noticed a tiny number of other-wise-typical Snowies that have the upperpart of the rear-head plumes a slaty gray:
    http://www.martinreid.com/Main%20website/egrets6.html
    -I also have a pic in my archive from Trinidad of a Little Egret that has in the background a Snowy with a similar slaty head-plume, and I have recently seen (no pics) another one on the Texas coast. I mentioned this on ID-Frontiers and got no discussion except a private reply from someone who had seen a similar bird on the Florida coast. I wonder if this phenomenon is limited to the Caribbean Basin, and why it seems to have not been mentioned in any current literature that I am aware of – ?
    Regards,
    Martin

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