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Voices of Spencer Creek

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Egrets in the Pacific Northwest

Blue Herons and White Egrets Share Roosting Trees When Necessary

By Lois Barton

Posted on Mar 29, 2003

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"Egrets" from the North American Bird Collection by author and photographer Tim Fitzharris

Egrets are tropical birds, right? Not necessarily. In fact, in recent years they have become regular residents for parts of each year in Lane County Oregon. They were not common here a few years back, and when they began to show each fall, they only stayed for a few weeks. The first egret sighting of record as far north on the Oregon Coast as Coos Bay was in 1976. Now they come here in late October and are present through the winter months around Fern Ridge Lake and possibly in other places. They have been leaving in March or April. I've just recently learned from a local observer who passes their place of roosting daily that some of them stay around through the summer nowadays.

An egret is a white heron. The kind we see here are called common or great egrets. According to Peterson's Field Guide to Western birds, 1990 edition, a great egret is a tall, stately, slender white heron with a largely yellow bill. Legs and feet black.... When feeding, the bird assumes an eager, forward-leaning pose, with its neck extended. Peterson's map of great egret habitat shows breeding ground in the Klamath basin area. Local birders I've talked to seem not to know where "our" egrets go in early spring to raise their young.

A friend first told me about a special place for observing egrets. There is a spot in Kirk Park at the north end of Fern Ridge Lake below the dam and across Clear Lake road where many of them roost at night this time of year. She has family members who drive past that area on their way to work, and have called her to tell of the birds "draping" themselves in the same trees. This seems to be a warm weather event. They spread their wings out so that they cover much of the tree, and it looks like they are sunning themselves. She has watched them gather for the night.

About 4:00 o'clock one evening she spotted the tree and counted nearly 30 birds in it. As she watched during the next half hour many more come to settle in the tree to a total of about 80. One of the local birders told me that the Audabon count for great egrets in this area at the end of December 2002 numbered 180 egrets.

Egrets nest in the same way herons do, high in a big tree. The following quote from Watchable Wildlife by Bob Garrison in "Outdoor California," Jan./ Feb. 1996 gives helpful details about feeding and nesting patterns: "Egrets and herons vigorously defend their feeding territories from other members of the same species. Between the two, the heron generally drives off the egret. However during breeding season, it is very common to see colonies of great egrets and great blue herons nesting side by side in the same tree. ...these long legged bird actually nest in the tops of tall trees, ...a good strategy for protection against predators, but a challenge for large, top-heavy birds with very long legs. They build a nest platform from large sticks and generally lay three to four eggs in early spring. The herons begin nesting in mid-February and the egrets start about a month later."

On a recent evening my friend and I were fortunate to observe some of those 180 egrets that live near Fern Ridge Lake. On our first stop in Kirk Park we saw that some of the birds were gathering in the trees where they roost at night. But the hour was early, probably an hour before dark, and many of the birds we saw there took flight from the trees, circling around, not yet settling to roost.

We decided not to wait for another half hour or possibly longer to observe and try to count how many were spending the night at this place. Instead, we drove along Clear Lake Road below the dam back toward Eugene. A portion of the borrow pit lay along the other side of the road and our car. To our delight about thirty egrets were standing on the bank at the edge of the water, two or three feet apart, their reflections bright in the water below them as they hunted a last morsel before going to bed. Their starkly white bodies, erect above the water, and reflected in reverse below stood out against the green foliage around them. A clear sky still bright with the last rays of evening sunshine highlighted the scene.

My friend's daughter, who drives that road daily to and from work, said she's never seen such a sight. Will a chance to observe such astonishing beauty ever again be my good fortune? Last evening I was privileged to watch those big, long legged birds find their roosts in some big alder trees in Kirk Park at the north end of Fern Ridge Reservoir.

I found the following poem by Mary Oliver on the internet.-L.B.


Where the path closed
down and over,
through the scrumbled leaves,
fallen branches.
through the knotted catbrier,
I kept going. Finally
I could not
save my arms
from thorns, soon
the mosquitoes
smelled me, hot
and wounded, and came
wheeling and whining.
And that's how I came
to the edge of the pond
black and empty
except for a spindle
of bleached reeds
at the far shore
which, as I looked
wrinkled suddenly
into three egrets...
a shower
of white fire!
Even half asleep they had
such faith in the world
that had made them...
Tilting through the water,
unruffled, sure,
by the laws
of their faith not logic
they opened their wings
softly and stepped
over every dark thing.

Writer and historian
Lois Barton
Lois Barton is an 84 year old mother of eight children. She has lived on the same rural acreage just south of Eugene, Oregon for more than 50 years. All their children learned to milk, to keep the woodboxes filled, to do their share of household and garden chores. Her first book, Spencer Butte Pioneers, was published in 1982 when her youngest started to school. Since then she wrote five other books: Daughter of the Soil, now out of print; One Woman's West; A Quaker Promise Kept; and Through My Window, autobiographical sketches, sequel to Daughter Of the Soil. Through the years Lois has been a 4H leader, president of the neighborhood association, a precinct committee woman, election board clerk, editor of the Lane County Historian, and a life long Quaker. She spent a month in Southeast Asia in 1974 as a member of a church peace mission, after working for ten years as director of the Eugene Chapter of the World Without War Council.

Visit the Sunnyside of Spencer Butte Section in our new format for more of Lois' stories. See more of Lois Barton's articles in West By online magazine's archives:

Visit the Heron Rookery

Sauerkraut and All That

Charlotte's Overdose - Just who is Charlotte and what did she take?

The Midwife - The midnight call awoke an unusual midwife.

The Mystery of Fox Hollow - Fact and fiction meet in this story of the origins of Faith Rock.

Trees, Tame Trees and Squirrel.

Books by Lois Barton

History and stories of the peoples of the Northwest.

© Copyright 2000-2004 by West By

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