The Little Egret is a very topical bird, having suddenly appeared in the Blackwater Valley in good numbers in the last year or so. This elegant and attractive all-white heron has black legs, but its contrasting yellow toes are often not seen as they wade around in ponds and ditches.
The bill is blackish at all times but if you look closely it has either a bluish or reddish base, the latter being part of its breeding plumage the time when it also has two wonderful long plumes hanging from its nape. Really, the Little Egret is unmistakable amongst British birds, although the occasional rarity such as a Cattle Egret may cause some confusion to the inexperienced birdwatcher.
The spread of the Little Egret is
truly impressive if not dramatic. They were barely recorded in the UK prior to 1950. By 1960 only 33 birds had been reported in the whole of England. Then in the 70s 47 birds were recorded, 104 in the 80s and 262 in the decade up to 1990. In that decade one bird was recorded at Fleet Pond on April 22 1982, the only record I have found for this area up to 1990. Since that time numbers exploded, although the clear population centres have been on the south coast of the country. Poole Harbour was the original location although they spread to Thorney Island, where up to 246 birds were recorded in 2000, also the estuaries of Cornwall held good numbers. Little Egrets have been breeding in England since 1996 when two pairs were found, increasing to 68-77 pairs in 2000. In 2004 the Hampshire Bird Report indicates 32 pairs bred in the county.
Here in the Blackwater Valley Little Egrets can now be seen most days at Hawley Meadows where a brief stop in the car park on the A331, on the opposite side of the road to Sainsbury’s, will give you a very good chance to see one. Up to 11 have been seen roosting in the Camberley Sewage Works and these birds regularly fly across to the river bank and the meadows to feed and rest. I have seen them resting in the trees at the back of the meadows and searching the wet meadow area for food in winter. Odd birds are now turning up regularly at Moor Green Lakes, mainly on Colebrook Lake and have been seen close to the gravel workings near Pea Bridge, Frimley Hatches and Shepherd’s Meadows. Most sightings are in the winter and it remains to be seen if the birds will still be here in the spring and summer months.
The hope is that we will soon have these wonderful birds breeding in the Blackwater Valley taking advantage of the improving water quality and the habitats being cared for along the length of the river although they are still largely nesting in more coastal sites. They are partial to floodlands, probably the reason why the wet meadows at Hawley are their strongpoint here, but these will dry out in summer. These meadows are also home in winter to Snipe and Meadow Pipits and the latter can be seen in flocks of 30-40 feeding amongst the grasses. The Little Egrets have catholic tastes feeding on small fish from the river, small amphibians, terrestrial, aquatic and larval insects and worms and small mammals to name but a few. In southern Europe, where this species is widespread and common, they will enjoy lizards and snakes as part of their diet.
When breeding the Little Egret lays its 3-6 eggs at the end of April throughout most of its breeding range and has just one brood. It nests colonially like our more common Grey Heron, which surprisingly does not have a colony in our Valley, so maybe the Little Egret will be the first? In Europe Little Egrets tends to use colonies where more than one heron species is present so in the UK where we have fewer species it remains to be seen how they will develop their nesting behaviour as they become more widespread. Near Reading there is a large heronry where the Little Egret has been seen several times in the branches, although no breeding evidence has been seen but they are fewer there than we have here.
Berkshire Ornithological Club