Then, yesterday, a Cattle Egret was discovered in a pasture near Becketts Landing. Although a southern species like the Yellow-crowned Night-heron, it tends to wander large distances after the breeding season has ended, especially in areas well north of its breeding range. There are several records of Cattle Egrets in Ottawa, so this bird is not quite as rare as the two that showed up in the spring. Indeed, a few have shown up after I started birding: one on Milton Road in November 2010, and a flock of 14 on Old Richmond Road in October 2010! I had time to drive over to the Old Richmond Road location before work the day after they were reported, but they were long gone. I did not try for the one on Milton Road as it’s a bit further than I like to drive to chase a single bird. That one stayed longer than the flock of 14, and would have been a lifer for me.
The Becketts Landing bird was much closer to me, and I considered chasing it if it were reported again this morning. It would not be a lifer, as I had seen two on my trip to Florida last year, but it would be new for my Canada, Ontario and Ottawa lists. I was thrilled when I read that it was seen again today at 9:45 am, so I finished my walk and drove 25 minutes south down Eagleson/McCordick to Becketts Landing. Along the way I spotted a huge flock of Red-winged Blackbirds in the trees at the corner of Barnsdale and Moodie, as well as a Northern Harrier coursing above a field on McCordick Road.
The last detailed message I had was that the Cattle Egret was in the field with the horses at 3169 Donnelly Drive. I found the correct address, and saw several horses in a paddock beyond a grassy pasture next to the road. I checked the area around the horses carefully but didn’t see the egret. Then I scanned the grassy pasture and found it near a fence post working its way west, about halfway between the road and the horse paddock. It was tiny for heron, often obscured by the long grasses and weeds in the field, picking up insects and gulping them down.
As its name suggests, the Cattle Egret is known for its habit of associating with livestock and grazing animals, particularly cows. This species depends less on aquatic prey than other herons, feeding mostly on grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, flies, frogs, and moths which are disturbed by the larger mammals as they forage. It has been estimated that by associating with cattle and other livestock, an individual Cattle Egret can obtain up to 50% more food while spending only two-thirds as much energy catching it.
The Cattle Egret originally comes from Africa and Asia, but reached North America in the early 1950s. It has become established in the southern and eastern U.S., and is still slowly expanding its range. Its successful establishment in new areas is largely due to its versatile feeding and breeding abilities, its predilection for wandering, and the creation of more foraging habitat when land is converted into livestock production and agricultural uses. Perhaps one day the Cattle Egret will no longer be an uncommon visitor to Ontario, but one of our breeding species!