Rescued great white egret released into the wild near West Richland

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldOctober 2, 2012 

A new great white egret joined the birds that feed on fish in the Yakima River near West Richland on Monday.

The young egret cruised from the slough just north of the Van Giesen Street bridge to the first slight bend in the river and then back again, his neck curved in an S shape and his long black legs trailing behind him.

The bird, maybe 2 months old, had spent about half its life at the Blue Mountain Wildlife rehabilitation center in Pendleton after being rescued near Sunnyside before he could fly.

Mary Marquez and her husband, Bob, have lived on acreage east of Sunnyside for 14 years, but the six great white egrets that flew in this year were the first they'd seen, Mary said.

"We were absolutely delighted," she said. Even better, an egret nest appeared in the trees around one of the three ponds on their property.

She watched the nest from her house with binoculars, until she finally saw a white fuzzy head pop up, she said.

The single baby had a devoted mother, who would stand over him with her wings spread, shielding him from the summer sun.

But "about three weeks into it she did not come back," she said. "I knew we had to rescue the baby."

They implored a friend to bring a boom truck, and Mary climbed up to the 40-foot-high nest to try to feed the baby bird.

Egrets swallow their food whole but the baby was unable to get the food down.

Next she tried leaving smaller pieces of food on a piece of cardboard at his nest.

"He was terrified of it," she said. "He stood on the side of the nest all night."

When he still was standing there the next morning, the Marquezes took the lift up again, this time with a fishing net.

"I knew I had one swing at him," Mary said. "If he jumped, he would die."

But she reached over and landed the net over him in a single try, relief washing over her when he was safely contained, she said.

She kept the bird for almost five days and fed him. But she knew he was going to quickly outgrow what she could provide, and turned him over to Blue Mountain Wildlife in Pendleton when she learned of the organization.

Great egrets can grow to up to almost 41 inches in length and have a wingspan of up to 57 inches, according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

It's only the second egret Blue Mountain Wildlife has had in 25 years, and the first baby, said director Lynn Tompkins.

He was hungry when he arrived and "started eating like crazy," she said. The bird weighs less than 2.5 pounds, but has been eating a half-pound of fish a day.

Tompkins knew the bird was ready to be released when it started flying well, she said.

"The general rule is the sooner the release, the better," she said.

Now the bird has to learn to fish for itself and likely prepare to migrate south.

Mary Marquez had the honor of opening the crate the bird had traveled in from Pendleton to the bank of the Yakima River just north of the bridge Monday. That area was picked because Tammy Wolf Slack, who lives nearby, has watched egrets near there this year.

At first the bird hesitated, then took a few steps out of the cage and flew about 20 feet to the north, staying close to the ground.

He seemed content to stay there, looking around, until a plane flew low and loud overhead. The bird abruptly took flight, landing above the water on the branch on a nearby tree.

That appeared to be the end of the show for the few neighbors and volunteers who had gathered to see him released.

But just as Mary was driving off, there was a flash of white over the river.

"He's flying! He's flying!" she called out as the bird flew up the river.

For people who know where to look, it's not too difficult to find a great white egret around the Mid-Columbia these days, said Corey Duberstein, a scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.

Generally, more fish-eating birds are being seen in the area than in the past, although it's not known precisely why, he said.

Great egrets used to be rare, after 95 percent of the population in North America were killed for their plumes to decorate hats in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds website. However, since most plume hunting was banned around 1910, the population has recovered.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com

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