White herons: A pleasure to see – a warning to heed

Blog post by Robert Morgan on 17 Sep, 2020
When a new acquaintance discovers that I work in wildlife conservation, it normally solicits the response "that must be a great job!" I have a number of replies depending on the time of year and the task I’m currently undertaking.

The next question is often "I’ve seen this odd bird, what could it be?" After going through its size, where and when it was seen and its colouration, I attempt to answer (it normally turns out to be a chaffinch). However, in the last few years I have been presented with a new question: "I’ve seen this large white bird…"

It’s a good question because the answer could be one of several birds; it also may involve an in-depth explanation on climate change, the state of the UK’s conservation work and our relationship in terms of wildlife recovery with other neighbouring nation’s efforts.

The first obstacle in answering the question is that some people may (annoyingly) refer to the more frequently encountered grey heron as a stork or crane. Once this hurdle has been cleared and one has established what a heron is we now have three possibilities: little egret, cattle egret and great egret, in addition the spoonbill can be thrown into the mix, although it is taxonomically allied to ibis.

The most likely ‘white heron’ will be the little egret. Being about half the size of a grey heron, almost all suitable wetland sites in southern and eastern England now has a least one little egret prowling around looking for fishes, frogs or any other small tasty creature to devour. Pure white with a dark bill, it is slim and elegant, with bright yellow feet that contrast sharply with their black legs. The little egret, once a bird of the Mediterranean, has over the last twenty years spread along the French coast and into England where it has established itself.

Great egret, by Elizabeth Dack

Great egret, by Elizabeth Dack

The great egret is also pure white but much larger, being grey heron sized but with an even longer neck. It arrived in Norfolk in more recent times from its breeding grounds in the Netherlands. Due to habitat lose across Western Europe it has become fragmented in range and nowhere particularly common.

The expansion of the great egret into East Anglia has been, in no small part, due to the astonishing and often ground-breaking work carried out by conservation bodies in the Netherlands. However, the species expansion has been made possible by the improvement and extension of our own wetland reserves and proves that European wildlife recovery will always require a cross-border approach.
Great egret, by Elizabeth Dack

Cattle egret, by Elizabeth Dack

Although, the most significant ‘white heron’ milestone and some may argue the most worrying, is the addition of the cattle egret. This small stout heron successfully bred in Norfolk for the first time this year and the northward march of this bird is being seen as another indicator of climate change. One of Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s long-standing volunteers grew up in Kenya and recalls seeing cattle egret riding on the backs of water buffalo and hippopotamus. Fifty years on he is now growing accustomed to seeing one sat amongst the hoofs of cud-chewing cows on the banks of the river Thurne.

There is of course one other bird that my questioner may have seen in Norfolk this summer, and it easily falls into both being ‘an odd bird’ and ‘white’. The spoonbill has made a remarkable and welcomed return to the British breeding bird list. It is creamy white, although adult breeding birds have a yellowish breast. They are quite large with lengthy black legs and an unmistakeable bill that is long with a spatula-shaped yellow tip. The spoonbill formerly breed across Norfolk with a 17th Century record of a colony near Norwich holding over fifty birds. It spent the following centuries as a rare visitor, normally ending its stay in a taxidermist’s glass case.

For the last 10 years it has bred every year at a regularly site in North Norfolk, with the county now holding a strong population each summer. At Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s reserve at Hickling Broad it is possible to see an impressive array of wetland birds, and with luck, all four of these newly arrived white herons.

Header image: Little egret, by Paul Taylor
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