While thousands of travelers visit Tambopata each year to see our extraordinary macaw and parrot clay licks, many other birds can be seen throughout our forests, rivers, and lakes. In fact, the Tambopata area is home to an incredible 648 species of birds!
One of the oldest environmental and conservation societies in the world, the National Audubon Society, has as its symbol the great egret. Based in the United States since 1905, the National Audubon Society’s primary mission is the conservation of birds and their habitats. In North America, great egrets were hunted almost to extinction during the 19th century, when their long white plumes were a fashionable hat accessory. It was this near extinction of the great egret which led to the establishment of some of the world’s first conservation initiatives and bird protection laws.
Here in southeastern Peru, in the Tambopata forests we have been helping to protect for more than thirty years through our own conservation work and ecotourism activities, guests who come to stay with us at our comfortable eco-lodge have an excellent chance of spotting this iconic bird.
The great egret (Ardea alba), also known as the great white egret, is a highly successful bird. Around the world, including the Americas, Africa, Asia and southern Europe, four subspecies of great egret can be found. Across these subspecies there is little variation, and birdwatchers from the northern hemisphere will have no trouble identifying great egrets during their South America birding vacation.
When seen framed against the green of the forests and wetlands it inhabits, the great egret is an impressive sight. This elegant bird is large, measuring up to one meter (3.3 feet) in height when standing, and with a wingspan of between 130 and 170 centimeters (52 to 67 inches). Adult birds can weight anything between 700 and 1500 grams (1.5 to 3.3 pounds). The great egret has all-white plumage, a yellow beak, and black legs. Male and female egrets are identical in appearance.
The great egret flies slowly, and when in flight it can be distinguished from storks, ibises or cranes by the characteristic way in which it retracts its neck, rather than stretching it out as it flies. Only when it walks does the great egret extend its long neck. The great egret’s wingbeat is slow but powerful, and adult birds will cruise at around 40 kilometers (25 miles) an hour.
Great egrets hunt like their other heron cousins. They stand immobile or wade through wetlands in search of fish, frogs, insects and even small reptiles, which they stab at with their long, spear-like bills.
Great egrets build their nests in trees adjacent to areas of wetland. Males select a site for the nest, and once the structure has been started they set about attracting a mate. One of the ways they do this is by growing long plumes on their backs during the breeding season. Great egrets build their nests from twigs, before lining them with other plant material. Nests can measure up to 1 meter (3.3 feet) across, and the female egret may lay as many as six eggs.
Not all the young survive the nesting period. Aggression among chicks is common, with larger young killing their smaller siblings. Known as siblicide, this behavior is not uncommon among birds such as hawks, owls and herons.