Large numbers of great egrets and snowy egrets have been visiting Indiana’s LaSalle Fish and Wildlife Area, one of the few substantial wetland areas along the Kankakee River that are vestiges of the Grand Kankakee Marsh, once one of the massive ancestral summering sites for these and millions of other waterfowl.
The channelized river runs through the LaSalle area — a 3,797-acre waterfowl mecca from the state line east to U.S. Route 41. Known originally as Kankakee River State Park when it was created in 1952, LaSalle contains many old bayous and ponded areas left from the grand marsh, which once stretched along the river from Momence nearly to South Bend, Ind. Some of the bayous at LaSalle are connected to the channelized river; others are areas removed from the river on both south and north sides.
The area is dedicated to providing hunting and fishing opportunities and is “an ideal stopover for migratory birds,” the Indiana Department of Natural Resources notes.
Black Oak Bayou, a favorite birding site for area photographers Gary Soper, Sharlene Parr, Jed Hertz and others, is one of the major resting sites for migrating waterfowl, both protected species and hunted species, including ducks and geese. Black Oak closed to the public Wednesday, as it has in recent years, to serve as a resting area for waterfowl during the hunting seasons, the latest of which is the goose hunting season that ends Feb. 10.
However, the White Oak Slough, in the east area of LaSalle FWA at the main entrance off U.S. Route 41, remains open to visitors, where the migrating egrets and other waterfowl still can be seen.
Large numbers of great egrets have been at LaSalle for the past few weeks, hunting the shallow water areas, as well as using the trees to roost, Soper wrote.
“The snowy egret was an exciting find as the little bird would stay close with a group of great egrets at the Black Oak Bayou,” he wrote. “Snowy egrets have interesting techniques for hunting. I observed the little bird vibrating its leg as it moved through the water trying to scare up prey. It also has a behavior called bill-vibrating where it will rapidly open and close its submerged bill to confuse and force up frogs, fish, insects or crayfish. They also stomp their feet up and down as they move through the water as another one of their interesting hunting behaviors, to root out prey.”
Another exciting species of wading bird was noted at the bayou by Hertz when he discovered two juvenile little blue herons with a group of great egrets on Aug. 6.
Great egrets are slightly smaller than great blue herons and “hunt in the classic heron fashion, standing immobile or wading cautiously through wetlands to capture fish with a deadly jab of their yellow bill,” the Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes.
Similar to many species of North American birds, great egrets were nearly eliminated by market hunters in the Grand Kankakee Marsh and the former extensive Lake Watseka wetlands, as well as other wetlands. The hunters killed waterfowl indiscriminately for their feathers to adorn women’s hats and for their meat. That sparked “conservation movements and some of the first laws to protect birds,” Cornell notes.
The great egret is the symbol of the National Audubon Society, one of the oldest environmental organizations in North America, founded to campaign to protect birds from being killed for their feathers.
Theirs can be a tough life, still. Nestlings are aggressive and larger chicks often kill their more vulnerable smaller siblings, Cornell Lab notes. “This behavior, known as siblicide, is not uncommon among birds such as hawks, owls and herons, and is often a result of poor breeding conditions in a given year,” Cornell notes.
Great egrets are powerful flyers, using two beats of their long wings per second to cruise at about 25 miles per hour.