The Guilty Pleasure of Watching Little Egrets

It is incredibly exciting when a new species turns up on your local patch.  I will never forget my first Roe Deer, flushed one winter in the mid-‘60s from a bramble thicket in the Blyth valley woodlands; nor, in the ‘70s, the appearance of Peacock Butterflies, those most exotic of British insects, previously only encountered on family holidays in balmy Somerset.

One of the more recent arrivals that gives me great pleasure is the Little Egret.  I first saw Little Egrets in 1972, in the Briere marshes on the Atlantic coast of France.  At that time sighting a Grey Heron on the River Blyth was still quite noteworthy, and it never occurred to me that one day they might be joined by these snow-white exotics.  But here they are, and in growing numbers.  There always seem to be several on the sand flats and saltmarshes around the causeway to Lindisfarne, and I often see them on the Blyth estuary as well.

They are not just beautiful, they are also fascinating to watch.  A Grey Heron spends most of its time standing motionless or moving very slowly, waiting for an incautious fish to come within striking distance.  The Little Egret, however, is an active hunter, always doing something.  It moves forward stirring up the mud or sand with its feet then darting down to spear its prey with its slender black beak – an assassin’s stiletto in comparison to the Grey Heron’s utilitarian jack-knife.  Its usual victims are pretty small – gobies, baby flounders etc.  Periodically it will whirl around as if afraid it’s about to be mugged by a stickleback, then stab away in the area it has just covered.  This is a particularly entrancing sight when it’s in spring plumage and its long fluffy plumes catch the breeze. One of the Little Egret’s most striking features are its bright yellow feet which contrast with its black legs, and I often wonder if this is an adaptation to reduce the risk of it impaling its own toes in the churned up silt.

Little Egrets are now well established as breeding birds in Britain, although they nest only occasionally in Northumberland.  They may be just the vanguard of a whole raft of long-legged waterbirds that are occurring more and more frequently in these islands – the Great White Egret, Cattle Egret, Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis, Purple Heron and Crane.  Apart from the Crane, which used to breed here in the past, these new arrivals have been propelled largely by climate change. And that is my problem.  There is a nagging guilt in rejoicing at the arrival of these wonderful birds when this is a result of human-induced climatic warming. Clearly, though, this is a feeling we naturalists will become increasingly familiar with as the century unfolds and more and more southern colonists arrive on our shores.