Image by Natural England, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Friends volunteer, popular guide and bird expert Trevor Gunton introduces the next in this series of informative articles.

Latin name: Egretta garzetta

This beautiful, elegant bird is a small white member of the heron family, which comprises of 60 species and can be found on every continent except Antarctica.

The Little Egret is now widespread in Europe, where the birds which breed in the north of the continent are mainly migratory, spending the winter months in the south and also in North Africa.

There are many sub-species which occur in various areas of Asia, the Indian sub-continent and Australia, as well as a rare form which is totally black, which occurs in the Arabian Gulf and India.

As with all white and brightly plumaged birds, all egrets were hit hard by hunters, who slaughtered millions of birds to satisfy the seemingly insatiable demands of the fashion industry.  This led to the near extinction of some species.  This trade in Europe and America finally ended at the end of the First World War.

Little egret by ianpreston, CC BY 2.0

All my birdwatching life, I have been keenly interested in herons, having studied and surveyed Grey Heron colonies in Yorkshire during the time of the big freeze of 1962/63, so it has been a great pleasure to travel around Europe to see so many different species.  Little did I know that one of the most attractive species would soon come and breed in the UK!

The first published breeding in England came in 1996, when the Dorset Wildlife Trust and the National Trust revealed that a pair had bred on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour.  The following year, 5 pairs bred in Hampshire and, amazingly, 10 pairs set up home in County Cork, Southern Ireland.  The Little Egret invasion was under way!

Overwintering numbers continued to build and I remember taking a group of our weekend birdwatchers to see a “roost” near Chichester Harbour, Sussex – not a great experience with just 2 birds seen in fading light!

The mainly European trend of moving south for the winter does not seem to be generally the case in England, with some of the largest winter gatherings occurring in Essex, Kent and sheltered bays along the south coast as far west as Cornwall.  However, in the early years the egret remained unusual inland.

Looking now at our local egrets, the first Little Paxton record was in May 1964, and then only seven Huntingdonshire records up to 1995.  Colonisation stepped up apace and by 2008, around 750 pairs were recorded at 70 colonies nationwide.

So, over the last 25 years the Little Egret at Paxton and elsewhere locally has been of very real interest to local naturalists.  Egrets have been seen in the cormorant/heronry trees displaying and moving sticks around in the spring, whilst in the winter a few birds have joined the roosts.  Hopes have been continually raised but breeding has never been confirmed.

The best time to see Little Egrets at Paxton Pits is the autumn, when quite large numbers may be around.  My best ever egret experience came in October 2018 when we logged 34 birds on Heronry North and South, with maybe more egrets in other parts of the Pit system.  After only one week, just one egret remained!

Just to update you regarding this last breeding season, over one hundred pairs bred at Northwood Hill, Kent, whilst at the moment over 1000 egrets are overwintering on the Thames Marshes.  Quite amazing, don’t you think!

Of all the 60 heron species in the world, many rate the Little Egret as the most attractive, and I think I agree. In the 2006 Report, I wrote “Surely it is only a matter of time before breeding occurs at Paxton Pits”. We are still waiting…

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