Kevin Evans, Former CEO, National Parks Association of NSW
The largest of the Australian Egrets is the Eastern Great Egret (Ardea modesta) standing almost 1.5m high and weighing in at 1.5kg. A truly majestic bird Eastern Great Egrets can be distinguished from other egret species by the length of its neck, which is greater than the length of its body.
The word egret comes from the French word aigrette, the word both describes the bird and the feathers they grow during the breeding season. When egrets breed they produce long delicate looking feathered plumes that cascade down their backs. These plumes became a fanatically sought symbol of high fashion during the late 19th century. Tens of thousands were killed in several countries resulting in many important populations being wiped out. Over a nine-month period the London market had consumed feathers from nearly 130,000 egrets
At one point, the plumes were so popular they were worth twice their weight in gold!
So extensive was the slaughter, egrets were adopted as the symbol of the bird preservation movement in the US. In 1913, two crusading Boston socialites, Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall, set off a revolt that lead to an end in the bird feather trade out of the US. When the fashion thankfully disappeared, the word aigrette became anglicised to egret and referred only to the bird again. Fortunately Eastern Great Egret numbers have bounced back in most regions including Australia with this species now having an extremely large range. Their conservation status is listed as of least concern globally by the IUCN and listed as secure in NSW. In fact Eastern Great Egret is reasonably common throughout Australia, with the exception of the most arid areas and Victoria.
The Eastern Great Egret usually hunts in or near water, stalking prey through the shallows, or standing motionless before stabbing at prey. They feed on a wide range of animals including molluscs, amphibians, aquatic insects, small reptiles, crustaceans and occasionally small birds and mammals, but fish make up the majority of its diet.
The longevity record for a captive Eastern Great Egret is 22 but it is thought that they only live between 1-3 years in the wild.
If you are looking to see Eastern Great Egret in the wild, there is no better place than at the new Reed Beds Bird Hide at Mathoura in the Murray Valley National Park. This new national park that NPA helped create in 2010 is a birdwatcher’s paradise, with different bird species to see every time you visit. Don’t forget to take your camera to capture a photo of nesting pairs of Eastern Great Egret next time you visit.