The Egret Has Landed

14th February 2009

Birdlife generally is in decline. Sparrows and starlings, wood warblers and willow tits – all are experiencing dramatic reduction in numbers. The picture’s not all black, however. Jack Watkins reports on a species that is bucking the trend.

In summer 2008, a leading broadsheet newspaper treated its readers to a supplementary guide to bird spotting. It awarded the birds featured therein ‘spotter ratings’, from five stars for exalted rarities to one star for not-worth-getting-out-of-bed-for. Twenty five years ago, the Little Egret would probably have been a sure-fire bet for a top rating, but this time round, it merited a paltry two stars. That says it all about the member of the avifauna that, in the words of the authoritative tome, Birds in England, ‘has undergone one of the most dramatic changes in status of any bird in England’.

Egretta garzetta is strikingly recognisable, with its pristine white plumage, often cutting a still, solitary figure in sombre autumn or winter landscapes. It’s a member of the heron family, and like the much larger Grey Heron, spends a lot of time in silent watch for prey, standing in shallows or at poolsides, and striking out violently with its long, slim bill when it spots small fish, snails or frogs. It has long black legs and yellow feet, and in the breeding season develops longish plumes on the chest, and crest feathers on the back of its neck. Throughout the summer they are more commonly seen in small flocks, but these will often disperse inland when autumn sets in, and it is at this time of year when the wistful sight of the solo egret, perhaps near a river, is most likely to occur.

Research suggests that the Little Egret bred in England as long ago as the Middle Ages. What is known for certain is that it was persecuted to the point of extinction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Victorians found its decorative crest feathers quite a fashion accessory, the trade in wild bird feathers for the supply of milliners at the time being highly profitable. A group of ladies from the upper echelons of society became highly agitated about the matter, and it was via the Fur and Feathers meetings at Mrs Edward Phillips’ home in Croydon that the RSPB was founded in the 1890s. Its first leaflet, on the ‘Destruction of Ornamental Plumaged Birds’, had the plight of Little Egrets, as well as grebes, very much at its heart.

Egret numbers began to recover in southern Europe with the cessation of trade in the First World War, and it seems they began wintering on the French Mediterranean coast in the 1950s. But by 1960, the recorded number of birds in England was still no more than 33, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that a substantial, and sustained, rise in numbers could be detected.

Then in 1989, a successful breeding season across the Channel in Brittany caused a huge dispersal of young birds from the colony, with something like one hundred birds arriving on our south coast that autumn. In 1996, a pair on Brownsea Island, off Dorset, were reported as having successfully bred and raised three chicks to fledgling stage. Since then the numbers have soared.

Andy Musgrove, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)’s Wetland Bird Survey national co-ordinator, says that there are now probably over 700 nesting pairs. “Numbers of individuals are at their highest in late summer and early autumn, when British birds are supplemented with ones dispersing from colonies in northern France. Autumn numbers now peak at over 5000 birds in Britain.” So widespread is the Little Egret across southern Britain that the BTO, in surveying for its 2007-11 Bird Atlas, has started recording it as a common bird species for the first time.

The BTO recorders still keep a close eye on its numbers because, as Andy says, although the gradually warming winters have enabled it to flourish and spread north, a sudden run of cold ones could still leave it vulnerable. But at a time when, to add to continued concerns about the impact of intensive agriculture on bird populations there are now worries about those that depend upon woodland, it is good to be able to report one species that is on the up. It could, though, soon have a family rival. According to Andy Musgrove, two pairs of Cattle Egrets were confirmed as having successfully bred here for the first time last summer, in Somerset. To the Cattle Egret, then, goes the honour of being the UK’s newest breeding bird - so let’s award it five stars.

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