Someone wrote me off list and asked some questions about what I wrote about the recent "Watauga egret". I thought the rest of you might be interested in part of what I replied. The question was basically whether I had rethought my ID. Here is part of what I replied:
your message prompted me to go back and look carefully through the entire photo array, and I now think I was wrong in my initial ID, and that the bird is a Great Egret. That is not to say that the points I made about identifying Intermediate Egrets are not valid; they are. However, with only photos to go on, mistakes and misinterpretations are frequent, and I made some, the most important of which was using a cursory view of a few exemplary photos to make my first assessment. Of course, not being able to get a feel for the size from the photos, and going only by what the observers reported was a tricky position.
1) I am no longer troubled by the leg color thing, and think I was right that it depends on how wet the legs are when viewed.
2) On closer examination, I see that the gape of the bill of this bird is always obscured by feathers as a result of its "scrunched-up" posture. By enlarging the photos, I can see that the actual gape is never visible, but that the trajectory at the base is for a slight turn-down behind the eye, just right for Great and wrong for Intermediate.
3) I also misread the bill color. Intermediate Egrets have golden yellow bills with what I would call "dipped in ink" tips, which is how I interpreted the Watauga bird's bill at first. On some photos however, the bill is turned more and you can see that the dark is only on the upper mandible and runs back a short distance along the culmen. So that's good for Great, too.
4) By manipulating the shadows a bit with Photoshop, you can see that this bird's neck is MUCH longer than seemed apparent at first. You can also see something of the Great Egret kink, which would rule out Intermediate in this posture. Their kink shows only sometimes during foraging, not all the time as in Great.
5) I note that some of our Asian birders thought this might be a Cattle Egret, but the observers were adamant that it was larger. So, putting size aside, why is it NOT a Cattle Egret. Two things: a) the apple green facial skin is typical of Great Egret, and I can't find a single photo in hundreds of Cattle Egret (both spp or subspp whichever you prefer) with that color. The loral skin goes from yellow to red at "high breeding" and back with no green in between; b) the Watauga bird lacks the "jowly look" of Cattle, which results from the fact that the feathering extends further out the lower mandible on Cattle Egrets, and is often puffed up. Intermediates can show a bit of this look, too, but anyone who has seen a lot of Cattle Egrets knows that characteristic and distinctive look. This Great Egret also seems a bit jowly, but not to the extent of a Cattle Egret.
I hope all of this scrutiny will have us better prepared when an Intermediate Egret actually does show up in NC!