At least four immature white morph Western Reef Egrets,

Bhindawas, Haryana; 7 May 2003.

Bill Harvey & Mike Prince


Watching a group of some 20 or so egrets feeding in shallow muddy pools we were initially struck by the generally pale, blue-grey bills shown by most of these birds. This is apparently regular for Little Egrets Egretta garzetta in immature plumage although most of the birds seen also had full breeding plumes. Presumably first- (or second-?) summer birds can still develop breeding plumage? The close look we were taking immediately highlighted the structural differences of some of the birds present, notably slightly longer, thicker and broader-based bills with a prominently curved upper mandible and also slightly larger size with longer, more curved necks. Although subtle the differences were obvious when compared directly with Little Egrets and we have little doubt that we were watching Western Reef Egrets E. gularis. In particular the upper mandible curved prominently down to the tip, and the lower mandible only slightly curved up, on the Western Reef Egrets, whereas on Little Egrets the lower mandible curved up more obviously to the tip but the upper mandible showed a more subtle curve down.

We saw at least three definite Western Reef Egrets, interestingly none of which showed breeding plumes, although we considered that there were possibly one or two others. Note that the second and third photographs show a bird (front-right in both photos) with the bill structure of Western Reef Egret and with breeding plumes. I believe this is a fourth Western Reef Egret, not definitely noted as such in the field.

The shape of the Western Reef Egrets was rather like Intermediate Egret Mesophoyx intermedia because of the more snake-like neck compared to Little Egrets. They also showed an 'angrier' expression than Little Egret caused in part by a less rounded head shape and a heavier jowl.

The colour of the bills were a pale grey on all birds, with a slight blue-grey tinge on some. The blackish tip visible on many (both Little and Western Reef) was probably due to them being stained from the muddy water. The lores appeared to be variably yellow with some grey/green with no obvious consistent difference between the Western Reefs and the Littles. Loral and bill colouration is known to be variable with age and season: typically non-breeding and immature Western Reef Egrets are thought to show brownish-yellow bills unlike these birds, although the lores are generally greyish-yellow as these were; immature Little Egrets typically have brownish or greyish bills and greyer lores, so the yellow shown on the lores of the photographed Little Egret would appear to be unusual. However, there are some contradictions in the available literature so it seems that bare part colouration is not understood clearly enough in immature egrets.

The legs of the Western Reef Egrets were slightly paler than the Littles, with the feet possibly a paler yellow. Note however that both leg and feet colour showed some variation within the different Little Egrets: few had black legs and on some the feet looked decidedly orangey-yellow. The tibia on the Western Reefs were perhaps thicker.

Most Little Egrets seem to leave the Delhi and Haryana regions in winter, returning in the spring to breed. It is possible that they move to the coast in Gujarat, mixing with Western Reef Egrets there and bringing some back with them?

I believe that there is only one previous record of Western Reef Egret in Haryana, a single bird at Sultanpur several years ago. Undoubtedly these tricky birds are overlooked in north India so let's hope we start to see some easier (although not still easy: see the Kosi River Western Reef Egrets for example!) dark morph birds in the future! As both the Bhindawas and Kosi River birds show, close-up photographs are extremely useful in order to be certain of the identification.

Thanks to Bill Harvey and Sudhir Vyas for their comments which have been incorporated above.

Stop Press: Manoj Sharma has had views of an interesting intermediate plumaged egret, which he considers most likely to be a Little Egret, in Corbett in early June 2003. "In body size and shape the dark bird was identical to the little egrets. The bill shape was slender and identical to the rest of the little egrets. (All the little egrets in the flock were having black bill). The length of the neck also appeared to be identical. The legs also appeared to be in identical proportion. The bird had a clear white head with two white plumes on the back of the head. The upper hindneck was white, chin and fore neck were white, bill was black, body was grey, legs were black and feet were yellow. In flight there was one broad white patch in each upperwing." See the photos of this bird, which does indeed look like a Little Egret, on the Delhibird website.

Mike Prince, May 2003.