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Holy cow! A cattle egret lands at La Jolla Shores

This is supposed to be the Shores, not the Savannah. Nevertheless, the second week of June, I arrived to the beach at daybreak and saw what I thought was a snowy egret standing in front of the bathrooms. Odd that it wasn’t foraging at the shoreline and that some of its feathers were tan about the head, chest, and back. 

People and dogs closely passed by but the bird did not take flight. Something wasn’t right. I contacted Sea World Rescue, and 2 hours later, when the team member arrived, I was told the bird is not a snowy but a cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis)—extremely rare in these parts. Right away it was netted and headed for surgery to repair serious predator-inflicted puncture wounds.

What was a cattle egret doing so far from others of its ilk and, well, cattle. Turns out that, unlike native North American herons and egrets, which typically feed in or about a body of water, this egret is an insect specialist with a penchant for fields, pastures, and grazing animals. Yes, cattle egrets are immigrants, having originated in the savannahs and marshes of the Old World before finding their way to Florida. There they continued a remarkable and fast expansion across North America to the inland counties of San Diego and Imperial Valley only 55 years ago. 

The cattle egret’s close connection to livestock is not specifically due to cattle themselves but due to cattle behavior in attracting, dare I say, a sort of grub hub. As grazing cows move about while foraging in the field, they kick up dust along with incidental insects that bug them. The egrets follow the cattle trail, capturing ready meals of grasshoppers, ticks, and the like. 

Most of the year, cattle egrets are white like their snowy brethren but mating season alters the hues of breeding birds: parts of their plumage become buff-colored, their standard issue yellow bill is swapped out to a reddish tone, and their black legs and feet transform to reddish or yellow. Thus, the wounded egret at La Jolla Shores identifies as a breeding bird.

Discovering a cattle egret at the beach was not only in and of itself special but would be so anywhere in the county since the local population continues to dramatically decline as pastures and dairies segue to urban sprawl. After all, in this shrinking environment, no good can come to a bird that makes a living from agriculture. 

My rescue endured two surgeries due to injuries being located where tissue-paper-thin skin on the torso connects to the wing. Thankfully, the second suturing and supergluing mended and, after a month, the cattle egret was ready for release. Note that rehabilitated animals are not haphazardly returned to the wild. The rescue team first conferred with websites such as www.ebird.org, identified recent cattle egret sightings around Lake Hodges, then traveled there to liberate their charge. While not all animals I’ve called for rescue have had a good outcome, it’s worth the effort because I know that whatever happens, the wildlife will no longer suffer and, if possible, get another chance at life.

 

— Judith Lea Garfield, naturalist and underwater photographer, has authored two natural history books about the underwater park off La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores. Send comments to jgarfield@ucsd.edu.