Finding and identifying a Little Egret among Snowy Egrets

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To find a Little Egret among Snowy Egrets:

  1. Look for long dangling head plumes (which all adult Little Egrets have, except when molting in fall, and all Snowy Egrets lack, except for a few rare individuals that may be hybrids).
  2. 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.

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) See details here

These plumes are present year-round on adults, except when missing during molt sometime between August to November

  • breast feathers long, lanceolate plumes with easily distinguished individual feathers (vs long lacy plumes without obvious individual feathers)
  • plumes on back usually straighter, not as strongly curled up (vs usually strongly curled up)
  • average slightly larger size
  • average relatively longer- and thinner-necked
  • legs average slightly longer and thicker
  • may average flatter crown with white feathering reaching slightly farther out on forehead, and tapering to a point (vs. white feathering ending farther back, leaving a band of bare skin across forehead which may be colored yellow like lores, and feathering more likely to end in a broad rounded shape)
  • may forage with slightly more upright posture

but foraging behavior is varied in both species, depending on conditions, so a bird that acts “different” from those around it is worth a closer look, this adds little weight to the ID process.

  • bill averages slightly larger, heavier and more even thickness throughout (vs. relatively smaller, more tapered)
  • loral skin typically grayish to pale gray-green (vs usually bright yellow to greenish-yellow on Snowy)

Variable with age and season. In nonbreeding season usually dark grayish. Adult Little Egret in breeding condition can have loral skin salmon-red, yellowish, or gray; if yellowish, the color is usually a pale yellowish-gray and not the bright yellow typical of Snowy Egret. Juveniles have grayish loral skin, but a major pitfall exists in the fact that very young juvenile Snowy Egret can also show gray facial skin in July-October.

  • iris pale yellowish to grayish-yellow (vs bright yellow, similar to color of loral skin)
  • legs of adult essentially all black at all seasons (vs green rear tarsus in Snowy in nonbreeding season)

legs of juvenile Little Egret can be largely greenish, but average more dark on the front of the legs and with more diffuse border between dark and green than on juv Snowy. The all-green legs shown by a significant number of young juv Snowys are very rarely shown by Little.

  • feet average drabber yellow and color does not extend up legs

in courtship feet can be reddish on both species, otherwise almost invariably golden yellow on Snowy Egret, drabber yellow-green on Little.

Bill color is not helpful for distinguishing these two species. Adults of both have all black bill in breeding season, developing pale gray base of lower mandible in winter. Immatures have extensive pale gray base of lower mandible throughout first year.

5 thoughts on “Finding and identifying a Little Egret among Snowy Egrets”

  1. Dear David,
    Firstly a typo: I think you have swapped the features in your third item of the bullet list above (plumes on back).
    And FYI I have a collection of LIEG images gleaned from the Internet, and high-breeding birds from Korea consistently have rich purply-crimson lores (i.e. no salmon-flesh or orange tinge). I also have one pic from Korea in February of an adult with bright yellow lores and feet, and one juv from the UK in July with completely yellowish-green legs. I realise that you carefully used caveats when talking about loral and foot color – I just wanted to mention that some of the implied exceptions have indeed been photographed.

  2. David,
    Further to your bullet list point 7 (crown feathering), I think there might be a difference in the shape of the feathering at the base of the culmen, somewhat like that between Tundra and Trumpeter Swans… in this case Little have a more-pointed shape and Snowy a more-rounded shape. I plan to look and Snowies to see if I can find exceptions.
    All the best,

  3. Pingback: How Well Do We Know Nominate Little Egret Egretta garzetta? | Birds Korea Blog

  4. I recently photographed a continuing Little Egret in Maine (July 1st). It had one lanceolate plume in tact. I noticed it was molting its inner flight feathers and the few Snowy Egrets that were present did not appear to be in molt. Do the molt strategies/timing differ in Little and Snowy Egrets? In other words; would a small white egret molting inner flight feathers in July support the ID of one species over another? If the molt strategies do in fact differ, it could be a useful supporting ID trait for distant scope views when the lanceolate plumes are absent and the lores cannot be seen well. I tried to research but I have not found a resource with this information. Any further information or comments would be most appreciated.

  5. hing. Is she OK? Is this

    We have a very snarky Gret who lives on our lagoon. She is a loner and all day long walks up and down the beach fishing. I don’t know where she lives but is soon as the sun is out Fishing. Is she OK? Is this normal? What can you tell me about her?

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