Egrets, Herons and Bitterns

To: Birding Aus <>
Subject: Egrets, Herons and Bitterns
From: knightl <>
Date: Tue, 17 Jan 2006 20:13:59 +1000
I happened to be pottering about Raby Bay [a canal estate south of the Brisbane River] on Sunday and noticed two dark, hunched stalking birds on the rocky flats. My immediate thought in the strong sidelight was that both were mangrove bitterns / striated herons. However, I noticed that I couldn't make out the black cap on one of the birds - rather it was a relatively uniform leaden colour. When it extended its neck and spread its wings in the course of its hunting, it was obvious that it was a dark morph reef egret. The other bird was a bittern - probably a dark morph but it kept its back to the sun, so it was hard to be certain. Interestingly, some people I showed pix of the two birds to didn't realise that they were different species.

Anyhow, I'm sure this has been discussed at some time, but what is supposed to be the basis for the distinction between egrets, herons and bitterns? It is obvious that there are egrets that are herons, herons that are egrets, and herons that could easily be called bitterns. The white-faced heron is an Egretta, the reef egret is more heron-like than the pied heron, and the striated and rufous night herons are rather bittern-like with their short necks and hunched posture.

Clearly, there are species that get around with an upright posture and strike downwards, and species that are hunched and strike horizontally. Presumably the egrets were white upright species [I suspect that reef egrets were named on the basis of the white morph], herons were upright species that weren't white, bitterns were furtive hunched species that lurked in the vegetation, and that Nycticorax caledonicus and Butorides striatus were labelled herons rather than bitterns because they come out into the open and move about while hunting. Their bittern-like characteristics though, are probably why Pizzey and Knight put them in with the bitterns rather than the herons.

Regards, Laurie.

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