Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Reddish Egret - Egretta rufescens
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General Comments This is one of the very few wading birds on the state list that does not breed in North Carolina. The Reddish Egret is a relatively uncommon North American bird that nests north only to the southern half of Florida, and casually to coastal South Carolina. Thankfully, there is a modest northward post-breeding flight (as seen with most other herons and egrets); thus, a few birds are reported annually in the state. Reports have greatly increased since about 2000, probably due to an increase in the Gulf Coast population. This species has two color morphs -- a white morph (with all white feathers) and a dark morph, which is the dominant form in the East. In fact, the dark morph juvenal plumage (mostly a dull grayish-flesh coloring), with a dark bill, was not adequately illustrated in field guides until around 1980. This species, like the Tricolored, strongly favors salt and brackish waters, and it is mainly seen near inlets and other shallow tidal waters, where it often can picked out at a distance by its odd, lurching feeding behavior. At times it can be seen at impoundments and other freshwater pools and ponds along the coast. North Carolina has just two records away from the coastal region, both from the Piedmont; only one has been in recent decades despite large numbers of observers nowadays.
Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank SZ
Global Rank G4
Coastal Plain Primarily a post-breeding visitor, though a few birds have lingered into winter (or overwintered) in recent years; records greatly increasing. Rare to very uncommon, though annual, along the southern half of the coast, but mostly rare on the Outer Banks. More likely to be seen in the Sunset Beach area (Brunswick), and also along the coast toward Fort Fisher (New Hanover). Typically from mid-June to mid-Oct, primarily mid-Jul to late Sep, very rarely in the spring. A handful of recent winter records, including two at Cape Lookout seen from 21 Feb - 10 Mar 2010 that probably overwintered. Peak counts: 12, Portsmouth Island (Carteret), 10 Jul 2020; 8, 6 dark morph and 2 white morph, eastern Shackleford Banks (Carteret), 13 Sep 2020; 6, Portsmouth Island, 21 Jul 2002; 5-6 at Lake Medcalf in Sunset Beach, early Oct 2005; 5, east end of Shackleford Banks (Carteret), 11 Oct 2015. The only clearly inland record appears to be one at Lake Mattamuskeet, 9-29 Dec 2008. Perhaps 5% of the reports are of white-phase individuals.
Piedmont Two reports. One was seen at a small lake 13 miles southeast of Charlotte on 27 Jul 1947 (Birds of North Carolina, 1959 edition). No details were provided, and the report has not been reviewed by the NC BRC. The only "modern" record was of a juvenile photographed at McAlpine Creek Park (Mecklenburg) from 15-25 Jun 2020 [Chat 84:127 link]; photos are on the Carolina Bird Club photo gallery.
Mountains No records.
Finding Tips Your best bet for finding the species is to check around the inlets in Brunswick in Jul and Aug. This often means putting up with hordes of beach-goers, and parking well away from the inlets (public parking can be blocks away from the ends of the roads). A scope would be helpful, as the birds may be seen on distant islands and flats.
Attribution LeGrand[2021-03-06], LeGrand[2020-10-20], LeGrand[2018-02-01]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
Click on county for list of all known species.