Monday, November 19, 2012

Cattle Egret

A few days ago, we were driving through the county to visit our friend's little dairy, when something moving off in the distance caught our attention.

It was a bird, brilliant white in the low-slanting sunlight of the morning, flying gracefully and purposefully towards the northwest. Both its brightness and it's flight pattern were distinctive, but at such a distance we had a difficult time identifying it. As we arrived, it flew behind the crest of the hill and disappeared.

As we went about our business at the dairy, my curiosity got the better of me. After asking permission—of course—I unchained the twin metal gates and quietly as I could, entered the adjoining field. Securing the gate behind me, I walked cross-country slowly and deliberately through the field, among the dozens of cows and calf grazing there, towards the crest, scanning the horizon as I went for any sign of the bird.

As I reached the ridge, there was a flash of white downhill to my left. There the bird stood in all its brilliance. It was tall and elegant, and as best I could see, pure white from wingtip to wingtip and head to tail. It moved with great poise and consideration through the russet grasses, plucking seeds and insects as it went. It studied its surroundings with great care and diligence, and seemed utterly serene.

From time to time, it would take flight for a few yards, moving to a new patch of grass to feed. And when it arrived in a new location, it paid no attention to the residents in place—calf, cow, steer or border collie. It simply went about its business with great focus. At one point, a calf, seemingly annoyed by the bird, charged it and ran after it for a few yards; the bird simply flew just a few feet ahead of the calf until it tired of the effort. It did the same for the border collie, who seemed to feel this avian intruder was not showing the proper respect.

But in a few minutes, the most amazing thing occurred. The same tan calf (or an identical looking one) slowly moved closer to the bird. For a brief moment, the two stood motionless, face-to-face, addressing one another. "There is no veil."

Then they simply went about their respective businesses.

It turns out the bird was a Cattle Egret, not common to this area, but not unknown. We are on the edge of their natural range. They are well known for their commensal relationship with livestock, feeding on insects drawn to and stirred up by the livestock. The livestock neither particularly benefit from, nor are harmed by, their presence. They seem to have no natural distrust for the animals surrounding them that dwarf them, but instead get along with them in an admirable display of neighborliness.

Its graceful flight, brilliant plumage and regal, assured presence made the Cattle Egret one of the most impressive birds I have ever seen in person. I'm very glad I decided to take that little walk into the field to see what I could see.

No comments: