Great Egret Sighted in Loyalhanna Creek
Inside the Outdoors, October 23 2009

It’s not uncommon anymore to sight the Great Blue Heron on the Loyalhanna Creek in the Latrobe area, but when two members of the heron family are standing 10-15 feet apart from its other, it is definitely a treat, from a naturalist’s point of view.

For those who may not be aware of this bird, the Great Blue Heron is the largest heron in North America. It has a slate-gray body with very long legs and neck. If one has ever seen it in flight, it appears to be enormous, for its wingspan is six feet. When foraging, it will stalk its prey slowly and deliberately.

While fishing on Keystone State Park with a friend, we often noticed these birds standing at certain locations. One time it was approached, and it flew off making a very unpleasant sounding screeching noise that bothered the gent with whom I was with.

So, when I gazed down to the creek one sunny, fall day recently, there they were, just below the blue Chestnut Ridge Beverage Company building, the Great Blue Heron and a Great Egret, stalking the waters for what would be tasty meals of sorts.

When I first learned of the presence of the latter species, I was contacted by the “all knowing, most-educated, man of the wilds,” Tim Vechter, who described the location just where I might find this bird. He was right. What caught me off-guard was seeing both herons together. The only thought that went through my mind was, “This is no time to forget a camera!!!”

So, how does one tell the two birds apart? It’s really not hard. The Great Egret is most of the time white or buff. The word “egret” comes from the French word “aigrette”, referring to the long filamentous feathers that seem to cascade down an egret’s back during the breeding season.

It may be of interest that in the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. some of the world’s egret species were endangered by relentless hunting, since hat makers in Europe an the United States demanded massive numbers of egret plumes and breeding birds were killed in locations all around the world.

Comparatively in size, the Great Blue Heron is larger than the Great Egret, but that’s not to say that the latter isn’t a hefty-sized creature. Each bird has long, black legs and feet. Its bill is yellow, stout and strait. When it flies, its neck is pulled back into an S-curve. When the Great Blue Heron takes to the air, it typically holds its head in toward its body with its neck bent.

Once called the American Egret, the name was changed in as much as its range extends beyond the Americas and farther than other herons. They may be found in North, Central and South America, Eastern Europe, Africa and North Asia.

The Great Egret is just one of eight different species. The others include: Cattle, Little, Eastern Reef, Western Reef, Snowy, Reddish and Intermediate Egrets.

It is my opinion, that in the last 36 years, more fowl and larger birds that prey on the inhabitants of the Loyalhanna Creek have not only visited the area waters, but made it their home. Some of these birds have become problematic, while others, while not seen, may go unnoticed unless they are the size of these creatures. Let’s hope, as waters show improvement, that many more wildlife visitors will stop by and forage between Ligonier and Loyalhanna Dam. As the old saying goes, “Only time will tell.

- Paul J. Volkmann
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