Pacific Reef-egret – dark morph, breeding plumage

“Pacific Reef-egrets (Egretta sacra sacra) are easy to see on the coast and river mouths of Kota Kinabalu city, Sabah, Malaysia.

“A few observations:

ReefEgretP [AmarSingh] 1

“The majority were of the dark morph. Phillipps states that ‘In West Sabah white morph is usually 10-20% of the population’ [Phillipps (2014) Phillipps’ Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo. 3rd Edition. Beaufoy Books, UK].

ReefEgretP [AmarSingh] 2

“Many were in breeding plumage with ornamental plumes on head/foreneck and back (top, above).

ReefEgretP [AmarSingh] 3

“Legs are described as variable, mainly yellow to greenish with bright yellow soles [Martínez-Vilalta, A., Motis, A. & Kirwan, G.M. (2017). Pacific Reef-egret (Egretta sacra). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona]. But the majority I saw in breeding plumage had bright orange soles (above). You can spot this even when resting (below) if looking carefully as it is the under-surface/soles. I suspect it is often missed. Wells states that “Howes 1896 report a dark bird with orange-yellow feet, a possible breeding colour” [Wells, D.R. (1999) The birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula: Vol. 1, Christopher Helm, London]. I would appreciate opinions/confirmation from others who have spent more, all year round, time with these birds.

ReefEgretP [AmarSingh] 4a

“I saw pair collecting sticks for nesting and one partner (male?) would ‘fluff up’ in front of the other (below); possible courtship interaction.”

ReefEgretP [AmarSingh] 4

“There were 3 birds I saw that has a very light plumage. They cannot be considered the white morph but are much lighted than the ‘classical’ black dark morph; they are a shade of purple-brown-grey. This observation was not due to lighting issues. Two of them looked young and were not in breeding plumage (below). They both had a white patch on the throat. HBW 2017 states the dark morph ‘varies in coloration, from slate-grey to brown-grey …, with variable numbers of white feathers on chin and sometimes throat (this feature is most pronounced in Indonesian birds, but entirely absent in some populations in S & E of range); intermediate forms also occur…’ There are few bird with a similar colouration posted in the OBI database; some have been labelled juvenile.

ReefEgretP [AmarSingh] 5

“Although I considered these birds ‘immature’ or ‘juvenile’ the third bird that had a similar colour scheme was in breeding plumage with nice plumes; so hard to call it ‘immature’. It had no white throat but the legs were oddly pale with dark marking. Wells 1999 notes that ‘legs … often with dark marking on the front of the tarsus.

ReefEgretP [AmarSingh] 6

“The ornamental plumes on head/foreneck and back are well described in literature but little mention is made upper chest plumages. Some use its absence as a feature to distinguish from other species. All the breeding birds I saw had clear upper breast plumes. See images at top, above, below.

ReefEgretP [AmarSingh] 7

“The above image is one of two birds that were up in a Rain Tree (Albizia saman) pulling dead branches for nesting, showing the upper breast plumes well.

Dato’ Dr Amar-Singh HSS
Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia
26-27th March 2017

Location: Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
Habitat: Costal region & river mouths in the city

  1. Lee Chiu San

    Here in Singapore we are familiar with the light phase. I know of the dark phase only through books. These photos are beautiful and truly enlightening.

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