At this time of year great egrets gather by the dozens in southern Minnesota’s shallow wetlands for eating and fellowship. They might even be contemplating their migration trips to the southern states, Mexico or Central America. Nesting season is winding down. Their one brood of three to four young fledged about 45 days after hatching. The male selected a nest site earlier this spring, helping to build a nest of sticks lined with leaves and finer materials. Males also assisted in incubating for about 24 days. Both sexes fed the young. Their nests were located in trees or shrubs usually 10 to 30 feet above ground, usually in colonies with other egrets but often with herons and cormorants.

The great egret is a slim, all-white heron, 40 inches tall, with long black legs and black feet, and a long pointed yellow bill. Males and females look alike. These statuesque waders are often seen standing along lakes or ponds, looking for fish to spear with their sharp bills. Other food consists of frogs, crayfish and aquatic insects. Great egrets also hunt on dry land for insects, reptiles and small mammals.

The great egret has fortunately recovered from near-extinction. In the late 1800s, colonies of this majestic bird were slaughtered by hunters in pursuit of the long white plumes that grow near the egret’s tail during breeding season, once considered fashionable for women’s hats. The name “egret” comes from the French word aigrette, meaning “ornamental tufts of plumes.”

Jim Gilbert’s Nature Notes are heard on WCCO Radio at 7:15 a.m. Sundays. His observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota.