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Sunday, August 26, 2012

White Egrets

Two white egrets are commonly seen in New York City: the snowy egret, Egretta thula, and the great egret, Ardea alba. Both are large white long-legged wading birds. Beginning birders confuse them, but a close look quickly separates them.

The snowy egret has yellow feet and a black bill. 
The great egret has black feet and a yellow bill. 
The question does not even come up if they are standing side by side because the great egret is about three feet tall, while the snowy is closer to two feet. Both kinds will fly south soon to their wintering grounds, so there is not much time left this year to compare white egrets.

The awkward elegance of egrets inspires poetry. Here is one of my favorites -- it is inscribed at the turtle pond in the Children's Zoo in Central Park.

Egrets by Judith Wright

Once as I travelled through a quiet evening, 
I saw a pool, jet-black and mirror-still. 
Beyond, the slender paperbarks stood crowding;
each on its own white image looked its fill, 
and nothing moved but thirty egrets wading - 
thirty egrets in a quiet evening. 

Once in a lifetime, lovely past believing, 
your lucky eyes may light on such a pool. 
As though for many years I had been waiting, 
I watched in silence till my heart was full
of clear dark water, and white trees unmoving, 
and, whiter yet, those thirty egrets wading. 

Ten great egrets and one snowy. 


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