Volume 12, Issue 43 ~ October 21 -27, 2004
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Bay Reflections

Everything Rare and Beautiful
If a rare and beautiful egret on the other side of the world is allowed to die out, will not our world be diminished, too?
by Helena Mann-Melnitchenko

An early morning drama unfolds on Edge Creek. It is an opera, really. The rising sun bathes the stage with lavender and apricot. Loblolly pines, willows and cedars lean over olive drab water. The orchestra tunes up with the croak of frogs and the hum of insects. One bird’s soprano is answered by the tenor of another. The minor characters, the brown ducks and a family of swans, sit placidly on the water.

The diva, a great white egret nearly three feet in height, stands still and silent on its long black legs among the reeds. Suddenly, it extends its sinuous neck and plunges its yellow bill into the water.

Chesapeake Bay is home to this great white egret, Casmerodius albus, and the smaller snowy egret, Egretta thula in spring, summer and autumn. In the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, both birds were hunted almost to extinction. Their delicate white breeding plumes decorated many a Victorian lady’s hat. Although fashions have changed, that was not enough to significantly increase their depleted numbers until the birds attained protective status.

The loud stutter of an outboard motor shatters the scene. An old man, his face wreathed in wrinkles, pulls up a crab pot. A girl and a boy — eight or nine — cast their rods from the grassy shore. Nearby, a catamaran lies at anchor, shining as luminous white as the egret against the cedar-stained water. It flies an American and a New Zealand flag; the black letters on its white hull proclaim it to be the Kotuku.

The kotuku, Egretta alba modesta, a distant cousin of Chesapeake’s great white egret, makes its home in Australia and New Zealand, as well as Japan, China and India. Although similar to the Chesapeake white egret with its yellow beak and black legs, the kotuku is more slender with a longer neck. It has been hunted even closer to extinction than our own great white and snowy egret. In New Zealand, the outside limit of its climatic range, only 15 breeding pairs remain. Both the British and the native Maoris highly prized their fragile breeding plumes as ornament. To the Maoris, the kotuku is a symbol of everything rare and beautiful. The chiefs wore its feathers in life and in death. According to their legend, the kotuku lives in the nether world.

I have only seen the kotuku in photographs, but I am enthralled by the rare white bird on the other side of the world. It brings to my mind the fabulous firebird that ate the golden apples. The firebird was the only one in the world. Will that be the fate of the kotuku?

On a sultry day in late summer by Chesapeake Bay, I am reminded that the solitary kotuku are arriving to their one breeding site in New Zealand, not far from the sea, to begin their elegant mating ritual. They sport the feathers for which they were hunted.

Breeding season has been long over for our egret; the chicks have hatched out of their pale blue shells. I saw its long train of plumes, silky white as a bridal train in late March. Snowy feathers decorated its breast. I had a moment of understanding for the Victorians’ desire for its beautiful feathers.

As I take a few steps toward the marsh, I must have crossed the egret’s invisible boundary. Slowly, deliberately, it takes flight, flapping its wings as if it had all the time in the world. It emits a hoarse croak. The diva has no operatic voice. Startled, the swans ruffle their feathers in silent applause. I watch the great egret’s majestic flight in the aquamarine sky. And I wonder, if a rare and beautiful egret on the other side of the world is allowed to die out, will not our world be diminished, too?

Helena Mann-Melnitchenko writes from Owings. This is her second appearance in Bay Weekly, following A Cautionary Tale, on June 24.

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