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Reddish egret study continues at ‘Ding’

By Staff | Apr 22, 2015

Reddish egret research is continuing at Ding Darling in Sanibel. PHOTO PROVIDED

It’s unusual and beautiful. And it also appears to be losing ground in the quest to flourish.

In an effort to slow the decline, researchers will return to Sanibel to track more reddish egrets, the burgundy colored bird that once was nearly extinct with its beautiful plumage hunted for women’s hats.

The Avian Research and Conservation Institute of Gainesville has two reddish egrets under study in Sanibel, the birds monitored with tracking gear harnessed on them like a fannypack. Funding for three more bird transmitters has been secured. Researchers will return to the Ding Refuge in late May, said Dr. Kenneth Meyer, leading the reddish egret study with the nonprofit Avian Institute. He began studies of the bird in 2008 in the Florida Keys. Researchers want a better handle of the bird’s lifestyle, perhaps learning why its numbers are backsliding.

Why the reddish egret is in decline “is the first big question,” Meyer said. “It’s frustrating.”

The reddish egret and its white cousin are best recognized for its unusual hunting practice of hovering over water prey with its wings fully spread, creating shade, confusing and attracting the bait fish its stalking. The bird spears its prey in a flash. Its dark red color also separates the reddish egret from most others, a gift that caused its near extinction. The birds, which are more commonplace along the upper Gulf and into Mexico, had stabilized in Florida starting in the 1930s, Meyer said, with laws prohibiting its slaughter and with huge refuges like the Ding established.

The bird, however, has been in decline since the 1980s, Meyer said. Experts suspect that lost sea grasses and habitat are killing off small bait fish birds like the egret need to survive. Human encroachment is the chief cause for lost hunting grounds. The reddish egret is listed as imperiled, a step away from serious compromise. Closer studies of the egret’s movements and diet could help it stabilize, Meyer said.

The Sanibel-Captiva Audubon Society, the Ding Darling Wildlife Society and a private donor are contributing some $26,000 to tag three more reddish egrets at the Ding Refuge, possibly in late May. Volunteers and scientists may wait hours, even days to ensnare a candidate for the transmitter that will share its lifestyle.

The egret research funding “is a great example of support coming from different directions,” Meyer said.