Big Birds
Visiting Egret Rookeries
Neil Wiley

Great egrets, snowy egrets, and black-crowned night herons flock together in tree rookeries to build nests, nurture their offspring, and make lots of noise.

Sometimes, egrets look more graceful than swans. Other times they look like clowns. They climb out on slender branches that a squirrel wouldn’t attempt, to reach small twigs for their nests. They fall, sometimes dropping upside down, but then with one sweep of their wings, they turn and glide to the ground, or fly away to find food, or perhaps for the exercise. They may be tired of sheltering in place. We all know the feeling.

They don’t exactly sing, but their “gaarloops” are loud, funny, and not particularly musical, except perhaps to other egrets. They often share the same tree branch while building giant but fragile-looking nests. Perhaps they like high-density living while brooding their babies in high-rise apartments with no walls.

I visited two rookeries in early June, the perfect time to see and hear the noisy circus.

The first was an egret nursery at Lakeshore Park, in a Newark residential neighborhood. The center of attention is a small kidney-shaped lake with three rookeries. You can see the main rookery island from the parking lot. The island is only about twenty feet away from a path that circles the lake. When I was there, the little island was filled with about a hundred residents. Most were loud snowy egrets. I could tell they were snowys because they had orange feet. The bigger great egrets have black feet.

I wrote a poem that honors these foot attributes.
The Egret

To tell a great egret from a snowy is no great feat.
Just look at their greatness and look at their feet.
The snowy egret has feet that are yellow.
The great’s black feet carry a much greater fellow.

It’s a short walk to the first bench where you can sit, watch, and set up your camera. It’s not far, but if you want to fill the frame with a bird subject, I recommend a 400- or 600-mm telephoto lens. You also need patience. You can see the birds, but they are often partially hidden by branches. It’s like looking through a window. Sometimes you see a little, sometimes a lot. (Not that I look through other people's windows.)

When they are fluffing and improving their nests, they often pose for a few seconds, but when they fly or fall, it can be a blur.

The egrets are relatively close, but the geese are even closer. Close to a hundred Canada geese have traded migration for a comfortable abode in the park. They are messy and spoiled, like children who never left home. They are harmless, but watch where you step. If you have time, it’s an easy walk of about a mile around the lake.

My second stop was the Shorebird Way colony in Mountain View, supported by Google, the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society and the city of Mountain View. Situated in a Google complex of small office buildings, on narrow roads softened by many trees, it seems a strange place for birds to nest. Yet the trees along a one-block section of Shorebird Way were filled with loud snowy egrets and quieter black-crowned night herons.

The birds are even happier because Google has closed the road, limited landscaping work, and left the nearby buildings nearly empty. In the middle of a workday, the small parking lot at the end of the road was also nearly empty.

Although it was a warm day, it was cool and shady under the tall trees. The only problem was looking up to see the birds, and pointing up a heavy telephoto lens. While I was there, I saw only two other photographers.

Other places to see big birds include Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge around the southern end of San Francisco Bay, Lexington Reservoir, Elkhorn Slough at Moss Landing, and Safari West near Santa Rosa.


To reach Lakeshore Park, take Highway 17/880 north to Thornton Avenue, CA-84E, exit 19. Take one of the left lanes, and cross over the freeway on Thornton Avenue. Then, make a right on Cedar Boulevard, right on Edgewater Drive, left on Chelsea Drive, and right into the Lakeshore Park parking lot.

To reach the Shorebird Egret Rookery, take Highway 17 to Highway 85 north toward Mountain View. Use one of the right two lanes to exit 24C toward Shoreline Boulevard. Turn right on Shorebird Way. You may have to turn left, then right, then right again. Shorebird Way may be closed at the 1209-1231 section.

For more information about the Shorebird Egret Rookery, visit

To see photos, go to mnn july 2020.pdf