Natural La Jolla: Showy snowy egrets are elegant fishers


The snowy egret, Egretta thula, is a small and delicate shorebird with beautiful plumage. They are also one of the easiest herons to identify because of their pure white feathers, yellow skin near their beaks, piercing yellow eyes and bright yellow slippers. They have black legs and a straight black bill.

You may find them alone or near other larger herons in La Jolla’s tidepools and shallow waters, where they fish for their meals. They use a variety of foraging techniques, from standing silently staring into the water, to walking slowly through the water, to using their yellow feet to startle small fish and invertebrates like crabs and worms, which they then spear with their beaks. They are sociable in liking to be near other herons but also defend their areas from intruders — they may even steal food from nearby birds.

In the 1900s, snowy egrets were hunted because of their showy feathers and delicate plumes that are visible during breeding season but have since recovered with protection. Nesting season is variable throughout the United States, but nests are made by the female in bushes and in trees, using sticks that are brought to her by the male. Snowys often roost with other herons in colonies. Both males and females will incubate the eggs; generally they have two to six eggs within each clutch.

If a snowy egret happens to fly past you, you can still easily recognize them with their long black legs extending out behind the body, and brilliant yellow feet prominently trailing along.

Kelly Stewart is a marine biologist with The Ocean Foundation who writes about the flora and fauna of La Jolla. She may be reached by e-mail: