Text by Dave Bakewell
Pictures by Dave Bakewell & Neoh Hor Kee
White egrets are notoriously confusing for the novice and experienced birder alike, with their lack of obvious plumage features and variable ‘bare part’ (legs, bill and lores) colouration. Identifying them correctly largely depends on an appreciation of subtle differences in structure and shape, as well as a knowledge of their habitat preferences.
This article focuses on identifying Chinese Egret (Egretta eulophotes), a globally Vulnerable species with an estimated world population of fewer than 10,000 (BirdLife International 2017), and in particular, differentiating it from the main confusion species – Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) and white morph Pacific Reef-Heron (Egretta sacra).
Where and when to look for Chinese Egrets
The bar chart for the species on eBird shows that it is most frequently observed between September and early May, with just a very few ‘oversummering’ records. Little Egret and Pacific Reef-Heron, on the other hand, can be seen all year round.
In Peninsular Malaysia, small numbers are seen at a few localities along the west coast, such as the Klang Islands (Selangor), Parit Jawa (Johor) and the Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda coast IBA (Pulau Pinang). Numbers are much larger in Bornean Malaysia, with Bako-Buntal Bay IBA (Sarawak) recording counts of almost 100 birds. A survey of the entire Sarawak coastline in 2010-2012 recorded a total of 637 Chinese Egrets (Bakewell, D. et al. 2017). In Sabah, Chinese Egrets can be regularly seen along the coast west and east of Kota Kinabalu, and around Sandakan Bay. A species map for Chinese Egret on eBird shows the distribution of records in Malaysia.
Chinese Egrets are largely restricted to intertidal areas on the coast, though they may gather to roost and occasionally feed in coastal aquaculture ponds in Sarawak. They do not habitually frequent rice paddies or freshwater habitats.
Little Egrets are equally at home in saltwater and freshwater habitats, and frequently occur in loose flocks of 100 and more in Malaysia. They also breed colonially.
Pacific Reef-Herons tend to occur alone or in pairs (often a dark morph bird is paired with a white morph individual). They prefer rocky and sandy shorelines rather than intertidal mud, and offshore islets and rocky outcrops. They do not occur in freshwater habitats.
How to find a Chinese Egret
The first step is to go to a place where they are likely to be found and at the right time of year (see above). Once you’ve done that, the key is learning how to tell them apart from the main confusion species, Little Egret and white morph Pacific Reef-Heron.
In breeding plumage (from late April), Chinese Egrets are relatively straightforward to identify, as they are the only egret to show a combination of yellow bill and black legs with yellow feet. They also have distinctive fan-shaped head-plumes, which are unlike the twin filament plumes of Little (Pacific Reef-Heron also has two short filament-like head-plumes).
In non-breeding plumage, identification is more tricky.
Key things to focus on are:
i. Bill shape and colour, loral skin and head-plumes
ii. Leg length and colour
iii. Overall structure
A Final Word
As with other species which are difficult to identify, the key to solving this puzzle is to base identification on as many features as possible, not just on one. These include habitat, time of year, numbers present and a combination of structural and bare part details. Photos are always helpful, especially in judging subjective details like leg length, and finer points like the shape of the loral skin.
BirdLife International (2017) Species factsheet: Egretta eulophotes. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 20/01/2017.
Bakewell, D., Wong, A., Kong, D. & Au, R. 2017. Waterbird Surveys of the Sarawak Coast (2010-2012). [A Report by the Malaysian Nature Society-Bird Conservation Council (MNS-BCC) Waterbirds Group in
partnership with the Sarawak Forestry Corporation]. Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Nature Society. (MNS Conservation Publication No. 13).