Operation Little Egret

img_4534I will admit it does look a bit odd, hauling old hanging baskets filled with sticks into the trees and attaching them to branches. But there is method in the madness. We are trying to lure in a relative newcomer to our country, hoping to entice to our wood a bird that Mark and I would make special journeys to go and see at University, over twenty five years ago. The idea is to encourage a new colony of Little Egrets to set up camp on the edge of our wood.

The Little Egret (Egretta garzetta – Linnaeus 1766), is a beautiful bird. A small heron standing around half a metre tall, its plumage is pure white. We see them often now as we make our way to the wood. Sometimes they are half hidden in ditches, sometimes making slow progress through a field, but always they are elegant. They move sinuously, carefully lifting each leg, replacing it with a delicacy designed not to alert their prey. Holding their heads still even while their bodies move, their necks bend, snake like. Beady eyes stare unblinking. But even twenty years ago, these birds just weren’t here.

Up to the 1950’s Little Egrets had only been recorded in Britain nine times, (and that included the bird that was shot, in Yorkshire, in 1826), but since the 1950’s their status in this country has changed dramatically. The number of birds visiting the country began to creep up gradually, to around twenty a year in the late eighties, then in 1989 there was a huge influx one autumn. Birds hung around and in 1996 the egrets bred for the first time in the South of England. By 2000, Little Egrets were breeding in 9 different places, and now, breeding is widespread with 660-740 pairs setting up nests in the UK and around 4,500 birds wintering here.

It was the noise that drew my attention to the first egret colony I became aware of in our county. I am used to hearing the raucous cries of rooks nesting in communities high in the trees, but on the day I went to buy some materials for the shed floor, I was distracted by strange bubblings and gurglings coming from the trees round the timber yard; curious guttural gargling I felt would not surprise me in a rainforest, but seemed completely incongruous in this rather cold, wet yard full of pressure treated planks. You can’t see the egrets very well from the yard, but they are nesting in the trees above. There had been an old heronry there, and these newcomers had taken up residence alongside their grey relatives.

It would be wonderful to be able to provide a new site for a Little Egret colony. Their numbers are still growing with usually a couple of hundred birds in our area at the yearly peak. There are suggestions that Little Egrets may have bred in England in the Middle Ages, hints gleaned from mediaeval banquet menus; the proposal is that they were lost because of the colder weather since, and the tendency we had back then to shoot anything that moved. The fact that the graceful breeding plumes of an egret were once more valuable in Europe than gold can only strengthen this scenario – a Little Egret would provide around a gram of plume. So whether the current population explosion is a result of increasing temperatures associated with climate change, or simply a re-colonisation, is up for debate; possibly it is both.

So, back to Operation Little Egret. Little Egrets like to nest in colonies and our wood is, to human eyes, ideally placed. It is surrounded by the flooded fields and estuary habitats the egrets favour, with these habitats providing the necessary food supplies – fish, amphibians and large insects. We have the trees required, situated at the edge of a cliff with a lovely view of the bay. What we don’t have is a heronry for them to adopt – hence the stick filled hanging baskets. We have stuffed the basket part of old garden hanging baskets till there is a shallow bowl made of woven twigs. These we have secured onto branches of some of the trees at the edge of the wood. We have even gone so far as providing some friends (made out of plastic board from a skip) so the first prospective tenants don’t feel lonely – a single board bird is in residence so far and the ones in the picture above are ready to be introduced to their new home. All that remains to be seen is whether the bird’s take on ‘ideal’ is the same as ours. Who knows? May be in the future we will see the glide of a white, one metre wing span, hear the bubbling gargles in the treetops and perhaps catch sight of the fluffy punk chicks that resemble small dinosaurs more than birds. I really hope so. But till then, there is always the beautiful bird itself to watch as it carefully tip-toes through the fields around, a refreshing pure white streak in the mud and greyness of winter.