Little egret (Egretta garzetta)

Little egretDuring these winter months, it is commonplace to see Little egrets (little white herons) along our rivers and their associated water meadows, and they can often appear to be quite tame as they feed right in the middle of our village. But this has not always been the case. T.A. Coward, the famous ornithologist, wrote in 1969 that on average a total of five little egrets would be recorded along the south coast of Britain each year.

It was not until the late 1980s that their numbers really began to expand, with increasing numbers crossing the Channel from France to spend the winter months here. Then, as recently as 1996, the first pair bred on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, Dorset, causing great excitement amongst bird watchers. Today there are some seventy breeding pairs in England and around 2,700 individuals choose to over-winter here.

Little egrets are a brilliant white in colour and during the breeding season have wonderful feathered plumes on the back of the head, which were once heavily sought after as hat decorations. Both the bill and legs are jet black – but have you seen their feet? So often are they seen standing in water that many miss their bright yellow feet, which gives them the appearance of having walked through paint!  I’m not sure why they should have yellow feet, but perhaps it has something to do with a hunting technique they often use to find small fish and crustacea, which is to agitate the bottom of the stream just in front of them with one foot, which can look quite comical, but certainly seems to be effective in disturbing small tasty morsels that are then “speared” with great speed.

Little egrets nest and roost communally up trees and the Brownsea Island nesting colony now has 45 plus nesting pairs – quite a sight when each nest has three or four nestlings flapping away as well! So why have Little Egrets suddenly done so well – is it a classic sign of global warming as many believe? Well, probably, but nature often does things that we think we understand, only for us to change our minds at a later date or admit that perhaps we had just jumped to a rather hasty conclusion. Time will tell.

Peter Thompson

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