Heron Hybrid – Merritt Island NWR, Florida

Alex LamoreauxIdentification, Mystery Birds10 Comments

On March 25th, a very interesting heron was photographed by two birders at Merrrit Island NWR, near Titusville on the Atlantic Coast of Florida. Ann Gaillard and Joyce Stefancic both photographed the heron shown below independently of each other along the Black Point Wildlife Drive, and allowed me permission to show their photos on this post. Study these first two photos carefully….this bird is a medium-sized wader with some very interesting features.

Merritt Island mystery heron (Photo by Joyce Stefancic)

Merritt Island mystery heron (Photo by Joyce Stefancic)

Merritt Island mystery heron (Photo by Ann Gaillard)

Merritt Island mystery heron (Photo by Ann Gaillard)

The facial skin/lores are bright yellow and the bird’s eye is yellow. The bill is black and very slender and long. The bird is very long-necked. The body is slim and long. The legs are black. Furthermore, the blueish-purple coloration throughout the uppersides, tanish-purple plumes on its lower back, and the white undersides really shout Tricolored Heron. Most of the previously-mentioned structural features also fit for Tricolored such as the long neck, slender bill, and slim body. I think Reddish Egret and Little Blue Heron can be thrown out right away based on the color and pattern of the plumage, and various structural inconsistencies.

With all those white feathers throughout its body, a partially leucistic Tricolored may be the most likely choice at first glance. However, the bird’s black legs and its yellow eyes are traits never shown by Tricolored. So…is this a hybrid? Here is a photo of a pure Tricolored Heron to compare with the photos above.

Tricolored Heron in non-breeding plumage (Photo taken in March by Alex Lamoreaux)

Adult Tricolored Heron in non-breeding plumage (Photo taken in early March by Alex Lamoreaux)

The Merritt Island heron definitely looks like a hybrid Tricolored X white egret/heron sp, in my opinion. The bright yellow lores and eyes, black legs, and all-black bill cause me to jump to Snowy Egret (over Little Blue Heron). Here are a few more photos of the mystery heron to look at…see what Snowy Egret characteristics you can (or can’t) pick out. The most obvious feature in this first photo is that the bird’s black legs transition to yellow ‘slippers’…a classic Snowy Egret ID feature, never shown on Little Blues.

Merritt Island mystery heron (Photo by Ann Gaillard)

Merritt Island mystery heron with Black-bellied Plovers (Photo by Ann Gaillard)

Merritt Island mystery heron (Photo by Ann Gaillard)

Merritt Island mystery heron showing incredibly long head plumes (Photo by Ann Gaillard)

Most herons and egrets are in peak breeding season during this time of the year in Florida, and based on the bright colors, fresh plumage, and other features I think it is safe to assume the mystery heron is in peak breeding plumage (for whatever hybrid combination it may be). Just as a refresher, here are two of my own photos showing both a Snowy Egret and a Tricolored Heron in full breeding plumage. It isn’t hard to imagine molding the two together and getting something that looks incredibly similar to the mystery heron.

Snowy Egret in breeding plumage (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Snowy Egret in breeding plumage (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Tricolored Heron in breeding plumage (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Tricolored Heron in breeding plumage (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Looking through the photos of the mystery heron, and thinking about Snowy Egrets and Tricolored Herons, I was pretty much convinced the bird in question must be a hybrid of the two – after all, both are common species in the southeastern United States, with a similar breeding schedule, and a hybrid could easily have been produced at some point. However, once I compared the mystery photos with my own photos of Snowy and Tricolored in breeding plumage, one thing was really bothering me – most of the photos of the mystery heron show two very long, slender plumes coming off the back of the bird’s head, roughly about the same length as the bird’s bill. But Snowy Egrets ever only have a short, shaggy crest of plumes.

Little Egret showing two very long and slender head plumes (Photo by Trevor Hardaker)

Little Egret showing two very long and slender head plumes (Photo by Trevor Hardaker)

Tricolored Herons do have two thin plumes off their head, but they are only about half the length of the bird’s bill (see my photo above) and they are usually somewhat shaggy as well, unlike the thin and crisp plumes that are shown on the mystery bird. That got me thinking – what if this was actually a Little Egret X Tricolored Heron hybrid!? Breeding plumage Snowy Egrets also have short, shaggy plumes that curl up off their rump whereas Tricolored and Little Egrets both have long plumes that run straight down off their rump. Scroll back up and look for these features in the photos I posted of pure Snowy and Tricolored, to see what I mean.

Assuming the two long head plumes, in particular, are representative of one of the mystery bird’s parents then I can’t see how this bird could be called a Snowy X Tricolored hybrid since neither of those two species exhibit that feature. In my opinion, the bird seems to be a Little Egret X Tricolored Heron. Yes this combination is very unlikely, however perhaps it is more likely that a lost Little Egret teamed up with a loner Tricolored Heron somewhere, rather than the chances a Snowy Egret and Tricolored Heron picked each other over their own respective species. Nonetheless, there are records from at least South Dakota that document Tricolored X Snowy hybridization.

Possible Snowy X Tricolored hybrid from Emeralda Marsh, FL back in Feb. (Photo by Alice Horst)

Possible Snowy X Tricolored hybrid from Emeralda Marsh, FL back in Feb. (Photo by Alice Horst)

A little bit of research online pulled up a few more instances of heron hybrids that are somewhat similar to this bird. A hybrid wader discovered at Lake Casa Blanca in Texas during February 1999 (link) appears very similar to the Merritt Island bird. Unfortunately, only one of the photos provided of that hybrid shows the head plumes well, and they appear much shorter than the plumes on the Merritt Island bird.

In Februrary, there was also a hybrid heron at Emeralda Marsh in Lake County, Florida that was determined to be a Snowy X Tricolored, but it looks strikingly different than the current Merritt Island bird. In my opinion that hybrid (shown at right) is much more heavy on the Tricolored side of things than Snowy whereas the current Merritt Island NWR bird seems to be more 50/50 in appearance.

Other interesting Tricolored X ___ or Snowy Egret X ___ hybrids that I found included:

  • These three apparent Tricolored Heron X Little Blue Heron immature birds from Connecticut. Here is a link to (presumably) one of those three birds as an adult.
  • This apparent immature Tricolored Heron X Snowy Egret from New Hampshire.
  • This apparent adult Snowy Egret X Little Blue Heron from South Carolina.
  • This adult Tricolored Heron X Reddish Egret from South Carolina.

Obviously, without catching the Merritt Island bird and running genetic tests, there is no way that we will ever truly be able to prove what the bird’s ancestry is. However, based on the photographs that were taken yesterday by Ann and Joyce, I feel very strongly that we should consider Little Egret as one possible contributor to this bird’s genes. What are your opinions? Are there traits and features that I am missing altogether that could help in solving this bird’s intriguing identification? No matter what we decide, I know that if I were in Florida right now, I would be rushing over to get a look at the bird in real life!

 

**UPDATE** – 10:30pm, March 25th

This bird has been causing quite a stir on various Facebook groups, which has led to more theories on what the bird’s ancestry may be. Like I mentioned in the post above, we will never be able to definitively prove what hybrid combination this bird is (without DNA tests) but making educated guesses based off the current collection of photos is certainly fun to do! However, I do think it is best to keep our guesses limited to one pure species mixed with a second pure species…..trying to say that maybe this heron is the product of a Snowy x Little Egret that then bred with a Tricolored is just way too ‘out there’ for the purposes of this bird’s ID. Yes, we see the results of back-crosses in some warblers and gulls, but why not just keep it simple (and thus more fun)?

The biggest news is that there is now a flight shot of the heron, showing the coloring on the bird’s wings! Florida birder Jennifer Zelik took the flight shot and another photo of the bird actively hunting (and whipping its insanely long head plumes around). These photos were taken on March 23rd and 24th at Merritt Island NWR.

Merritt Island mystery heron in flight (Photo by Jennifer Zelik)

Merritt Island mystery heron in flight (Photo by Jennifer Zelik)

Merritt Island mystery heron hunting (Photo by Jennifer Zelik)

Merritt Island mystery heron hunting (Photo by Jennifer Zelik)

One species that many folks have thrown out is that perhaps Western Reef Heron should also be considered. Western Reef Herons are incredibly rare vagrants to the ABA, so I can provide some background on this species for those that may not know much about them. The Western Reef Heron is a medium-sized and slender heron that is native to the west coast of Africa. A handful of times the species has strayed to the east coast of the US and the Caribbean. Originally, individuals that are now called the ‘Western Reef Heron’ were considered subspecies of the Little Egret. The decision to split Little Egret is still contested.

Like many heron and egret species, the Western Reef Heron as two color types – dark and light, plus the two color types cause some intermediates. More information and photos of Western Reef Herons can be seen at this link. Photos 6 through 8 at that link show an intermediate Western Reef Heron that is superficially quite similar to the hybrid, but also quite different if you compare photos closely. Multiple plumage and structural traits absent on the hybrid rule out the chance that this mystery bird is actually a pure Western Reef. Additionally, I believe the overall structure and body shape of the hybrid still looks better for having Tricolored genes than anything else. Maybe the mystery heron is a Tricolored X ‘white’ Western Reef Heron, but when you consider that Little Egret is a more common stray to the ABA, plus there is already evidence of Little Egrets occasionally breeding in Barbados…..I think I’ll stick to my original guess of Little Egret X Tricolored Heron, if for nothing else than probability’s sake.

Another big consideration was brought up in the comments to this post, ‘Seabird McKeon’ stresses that “We often think of hybrids as displaying the characters of one of their parents, or a mixture of both, but gene expression can do some strange things – including the display of ‘novel’ characters, and genetic traits that are seen in the greater lineage, but perhaps not in either parental species.”

This idea takes us back to everyone’s initial guess – that perhaps this is ‘just another’ Snowy X Tricolored Heron hybrid…..