Snowy’s Evening Retreat

About this time every year in the Charleston area, birders are treated to seeing large gatherings, or colonies, of Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets nesting in dense foliage along the wetlands known as rookeries. Nesting actually begins in early spring, but right about now the young birds become very active and begin to test out their wings. The adult birds are very active too, raising their little ones and continuing to court their mate, sporting beautiful breeding plumage and strutting their stuff.

I am fortunate to live near several rookeries and have spent quite a bit of time recently studying the habits of Snowy Egrets around the Lowcountry. This season has proven to be exceptional as far as imagery goes, inspiring my most recent Aviary painting entitled Snowy’s Evening Retreat.

Snowy’s Evening Retreat   by William R. Beebe, 30 x 24, Oil on canvas, $6200

Snowy’s Evening Retreat by William R. Beebe, 30 x 24, Oil on canvas, $6200

Interestingly enough, almost 200 years ago in the spring of 1832, John James Audubon was in Charleston doing the same thing! He reported having seen thousands of Snowies in full breeding plumage. He painted the delicate, white Snowy Egret as I often see it, stalking along the water’s edge. In the distance of his painting one can detect a tiny hunter coming toward the bird, a sign of danger lurking, for they were considered a delicacy. The beautiful, white breeding plumage became highly sought after in the late 19th century for women’s fashion-wear, to the point where the species almost became extinct. Thanks to individual state Audubon Societies formed in the 1890’s and eventually the National Audubon Society, formed in 1905, we are all blessed to have a strong egret population today.

Recently, I’ve completed a number of bird portraits, substantial in size. I chose to paint the birds roughly life size, with solid backgrounds not to distract from the bird. I’ve read that Audubon, on his quest to paint every bird in America, painted each bird life size. Although, I’m not scientific like he was (measuring each bird’s length and height), I do prefer to create paintings in which the viewer can get an idea of roughly how big each bird is.

Snowy Egrets are smaller in size than say a Great Egret. Audubon measured a Snowy at 22 ½ inches in length and 30 ½ inches from head to toe. They are even smaller when legs are bent and necks are tucked. Upon recently witnessing and photographing Snowies on Isle of Palms, with a wonderfully, dark botanical background, I knew I wanted to create a substantial piece focusing not just on the bird, but also on the background.

I love seeing these beautiful, white birds surrounded by palmetto leaves, branches, and greenery. I often photograph them with dark backgrounds so the bird really stands out. In this case, I found the dark background fascinating. As I looked further into the darkness, I discovered overlapping layers of palmetto leaves, tropical in nature. The Snowy’s breeding plumage (aigrettes) was on display, wings were raised and his bright yellow feet grabbed hold of the greenery below.

Snowy’s Evening Retreat   by William R. Beebe, head detail

Snowy’s Evening Retreat by William R. Beebe, head detail

Snowy’s Evening Retreat   by William R. Beebe, feet detail

Snowy’s Evening Retreat by William R. Beebe, feet detail

The interesting flora surrounding the bird brought to mind not only Audubon’s famous work, but also the Aviary art of another wonderfully talented Charleston artist John C. Doyle. I discovered his art and passion for painting wading birds when we moved to Charleston two years ago.

From the 1980’s-2014, local artist John C. Doyle was traversing the Lowcountry studying, drawing, and painting Great Egrets and other birdlife. In particular, his paintings of Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons caught my eye. Many of which captured the magnificent swamp and surrounding flora at Magnolia Plantation. His backgrounds were filled with light and color.

In my painting, Snowy’s Evening Retreat, I portray the egret away from the nest, courting its mate with crest displayed, actively flirting. The bird is roughly life size and the background is typical of the Lowcountry and the island’s rookery. The trees are dense, much of which are monochromatic, but the evening light highlights the greenery in the foreground and the bird. Light filters through the palmetto leaves adding depth and draws the viewer’s eye around the canvas.

Snowies are delicate looking birds with fine feathers. They are social birds with a playful personality. Their bright, yellow feet and yellowish beak area (lore) are good identifiers when trying to distinguish it from similar looking birds like the immature Little Blue Heron or the Cattle Egret.

Snowy’s Evening Retreat is the first of what I hope is a series of Snowy Egret paintings all inspired by this season’s bird outings here in the Lowcountry.

Thank you for your interest in my art and for reading my journal. Please check back soon to see what’s next on my easel. It could be one of my newly discovered locations in downtown Charleston or it could be another Snowy!


One of the joys of being an artist is having the freedom to follow my passion….
— William R. Beebe
What’s next?  Drawing by William R. Beebe

What’s next?

Drawing by William R. Beebe