Stumbling along the trail of the Great White Egret

A decade ago, Great White Egrets were a notable rarity. Now they are a regular breeder in the Somerset Levels. The story of this change is fascinating, but it’s one that requires a Europe-wide scope: it’s not just a national phenomenon. Meanwhile, I’ve found that they have presented a photographic challenge which I’ve often failed: despite being large and very visible I’ve had trouble getting decent photographs of them. Over the past fortnight a couple of showy egrets at Ham Wall have changed that.

My first encounter with a Great White Egret was about nine years ago, when I went with my mother to a nature reserve (Ashleworth Ham) a few miles from Cheltenham.They had only recently started breeding in north-west France (in the Loire valley), some distance from their stronghold in SE Europe. This particular individual had been colour-ringed as a nestling, so that its movements were able to be tracked (so it’s known that a few days later it dropped into Catcott Lows, just a couple of miles from here in Shapwick). What intrigued me at the time was the rather different hunting style of the egret compared to Grey Herons – purposeful search-and-pursue rather than sit-and-wait.

Portrait of a Great White Egret, prowling. (Ham Wall 2019)

A couple of years later I happened to spend a week at the New Wine conference near Shepton Mallet. On the day off in the middle of the week I headed off to Shapwick Heath. I had a vague hope of seeing the Great White Egrets that had just started breeding. I was lucky because while I was there I noticed a couple of birders along the track peering into the reeds, and they pointed out the chicks that had been born recently. This was the second of the two pairs that bred successfully on the reserve, which were the first to be born in the UK.

Great White Egret – prowling and alert.

Since moving to Shapwick in 2016, I’ve been amazed how common it is to see Great White Egrets around here – so much so that it’s now rare to go to Ham Wall or Shapwick Heath and not see one. It certainly helps that they are large, showy and fly around a lot; much easier to see than,say, the fairly common water rails that are cryptically-coloured and skulk around the reedbeds out of sight.

I’ve been spotted…

When Jen and I went to Austria a couple of years ago to visit Rachel Olney, we had a day trip to Lake Neusiedl – and I was almost disappointed to find that the Great White Egret was fairly common there. What I failed to realise was that this location has a notable role for the species.

Although it’s found on all five continents (admittedly in low numbers), within Europe this was as far west as it ventured – until very recently. It had been recorded there as far back as 1682, but an increase in hunting in the 19th century led to its disappearance from the area. However, changes in legislation led to protection for its breeding areas, so it was able to return, and in the 1940s there were about 100 pairs around Lake Neusiedl.

The expansion of its range since then has been quite dramatic. It first started to breed in the Netherlands in 1978, but for about 15 years this was an isolated (but successful) western outpost. Its arrival as a breeding bird in France was in 1994, where there are now probably over 200 pairs, and it was from here that the bird came which my mother and I saw. Its first breeding in the UK on Shapwick Heath in 2012, which I saw by chance, is one of a number of remarkable breeding successes for the bird reserves of the Somerset Levels over the last few years, but in the same year first breeding also occurred in Belgium, Germany and Sweden.

The exact cause of this expansion of its range is unclear – whether it is global warming, or reduced hunting pressure, or whether it just happens to have broken through to a new range of suitable territories – or maybe a combination of these reasons. [ref] It does however appear to be very recent. By contrast, another bird which has recently started breeding in the UK – the spoonbill – was well known and often shot in Tudor England, so it appears that they are reclaiming territory from which they had previously been hunted out.

Ham Wall 2019: Herons and egrets usually don’t like each other that much, so it was a surprise when the heron imposed itself that the egret didn’t depart. They also provide a nice size comparison!

Nevertheless, by last summer I felt that these egrets were my bogey birds, photographically. Yes it was easy to see them – but they were usually too far away to be able to photograph well. Also their whiteness posed a problem: I would invariably over-expose. It took me a long time to realise by how much I had to under-expose in order to be able get a decent photo of these or the other egrets around. (I now routinely under-expose by two whole stops.) However, I did have a couple of encounters at the Decoy Hide that led to some decent photos.

The last couple of weeks have changed that with a couple of showy egrets at Ham Wall – one on the way to the Tor View Hide, one from the Avalon Hide.

Great white egret preening – or answering the phone?

In the previous week, an egret landed on the bank of the canal (South Drain) running through the reserve, and I was lining up a photo when it flew off. For once I was able to track it – and the results were much better than I had expected.

Great white egret in flight over Ham Wall

Great white egret in flight over Ham Wall

Great white egret in flight over Ham Wall

One of the curiosities of my observations of the Great White Egret is that I’ve only rarely set out to look for the species – one of these being the first one, the Ashleworth Ham trip in 2010. Since then I’ve almost stumbled across it as I observed the other birds of the area – perhaps taking it for granted, as it’s quite easy to see. But, as I have discovered, the story associated with the species is fascinating and shouldn’t be overlooked.

Press Ollie’s left foot twice

Joshua’s arrival has changed my perspective in lots of ways. For example, I hadn’t realised how exciting it would be just to see him roll from his back to his front. There are plenty of milestones to go before full mobility – but Jen and I discovered that this little step was worth celebrating!

Then there are the new skills needed in looking after a baby. There are the obvious ones – managing wee and poo to name two – but there are others that I hadn’t expected. For example, how do you pick something off the floor with your right hand while holding a baby on your left shoulder? It’s quite tricky! It seems to require either the butt-out, knees forward procedure, or the down-on-one-knee manoeuvre. Success is achieved with picking up the item with baby being largely oblivious.


Our sleep agent, aka Ollie the Owl

Putting baby to sleep seems to be a common problem – and while Joshua doesn’t think much of daytime sleep, he tends to sleep well at night. For this, we have an agent. Like all agents, he looks friendly (a cuddly owl) while concealing some clever electronics. Thus, shortly after Ollie’s arrival, we needed to switch him off, at which point Jen told me to ‘press Ollie’s left foot twice’.

Ollie has a number of tricks up his wings. If I press his left wing once, he emits lullabies; twice provides the sound of rainfall. Pressing his right wing gives access to the white noise – and with this comes an ‘intelligent cry sensor’. The white noise lasts 20 minutes; but if Joshua cries, Ollie starts emitting white noise again. The term ‘intelligent cry sensor’ is slightly inaccurate as Ollie is also triggered by other things, such as a door closing, or one of us sneezing or burping. (Oh alright, that’d be me in each case!)

I’ve also found myself having strong opinions about nursery rhymes. The ‘Three blind mice’ doesn’t set a good example of how to treat animals: “they all ran after the farmer’s wife, who cut off their tails with a carving knife”. The RSPCA clearly should speak to the farmer’s wife about this. I’m also a bit concerned about Old MacDonald’s animal husbandry skills. With a moo-moo here, and a moo-moo there, everywhere a moo-moo – there are clearly cows all over the place. It’s the same with the sheep and goats and everything else: they’re all mixed up together! Worse still, whenever anyone checks there’s a different array of animals and birds every time. It’s clearly chaos on the farm. Meanwhile, I must admit to having a favourite nursery rhyme: “Five little speckled frogs // Sat on a speckled log // Eating some most delicious bugs…” Which one Joshua prefers, though, we have yet to see.


One little speckled frog, with one big speckled frog… not sure about the log but the bugs at Ham Wall seem to be to the liking of these frogs.

Meanwhile, Jen’s had a radical change of hairstyle (at least for the time being)…

Before the chop

After the chop

Jen’s following the example of Rachel Linham in Ashcott, and is sending her hair to be made into wigs for children who have cancer. (here)

Meanwhile, Joshua finds the piano quite fascinating – press a note, and a sound comes out. Press a different note, and a different sound comes out. (That’s about the limit of my musical knowledge; it’s over to Jen from now on…)

No point in delaying development of musical skills…

Birding catch-up

For one or two reasons (one of which is small, cries a lot and is growing fast), I’ve done less birding than usual – but I’ve still managed a few bird photos. Sometimes this has been via a visit to a reserve;at other times we’re going for a walk and then – “hang on Jen, hold the baby, there’s a dipper / kestrel / wagtail over there”.

In August the three of us went to Watersmeet, just over the border into north Devon near Lynmouth. While we walked along the riverbank path, I caught sight of a very obliging dipper – which was very much a ‘hold the baby’ moment!


Dipper near Watersmeet

It soon flew off to a more distant boulder.


Dipper near Watersmeet

In the middle of September, Jen and I went for a walk through the Westhay reserve towards Mudgley one evening. On the way we had a lovely view of a roe deer in the evening Sun.


Roe deer at the Westhay nature reserve

Last month I went to Ham Wall on a day organised by Carl Bovis, an outstanding wildlife photographer who (amongst other things) runs the Somerset Nature Photography group on Facebook. He was also one of the exhibitors at the Eyes on Wildlife weekend!

During the day I finally managed to get a good photo of a cormorant: they’re not exactly pretty birds and generally just look black, and they tend to take a lesser priority than other birds (such as grebes), but this time the lighting was just right to make it look interesting.


Cormorant at Ham Wall

I spent much of the morning hanging out with Chris Hooper and Les Moxon – they’re far better photographers than I am! – but it was enjoyable spending time with them and learning from them. We spent a while at the Tor View hide where a Little Grebe provided much entertainment with its continual activity.


Little Grebe at Ham Wall


Little Grebe at Ham Wall


Some of the wildlife photographers at Ham Wall from the Somerset Nature Photography group. Neil & Jan Fearnley; Chris Hooper; Les Moxon; Carl Bovis.

About three weeks later I went down to Ham Wall for an afternoon trip, and although the weather was good it was less productive photographically… except for some Iberian Water Frogs. As their name implies, they’re an introduced species but they have a certain froggy charm to them – and provide a tasty morsel for the local bitterns and egrets…


Iberian Water Frogs at Ham Wall

While we were in Cornwall, on our trip to the Lizard Peninsula last week, we came across a very obliging kestrel perched on top of a pole (and it was Jen who spotted it before I did!). I was photographing it for about five minutes before it flew off to a nearby fence-post. Although this new perch provided a view of more of the bird, the lighting wasn’t nearly as good as before – as a comparison of the two photos will show.


Kestrel on the Lizard Peninsula


Kestrel on the Lizard Peninsula

Cornish present and past

We’ve just come back from a very refreshing week in Cornwall, staying at a cottage near Stithians. It was a great location for easy access to both north and south coasts, as well as Land’s End.

The best weather of the week was on the Tuesday when we went to the Lizard Peninsula. We walked from the Point (after a good brekkie for lunch!) to Kynance Cove, which was a wonderfully scenic route.


Kynance Cove from the Lizard Peninsula

Kynance Cove itself is a sheltered and picturesque bay; unfortunately we didn’t have long there because we needed to get back before sunset.


Kynance Cove


Looking south from Kynance Cove

On our return, a little person didn’t like being in his carrier, so we took a different approach…


Walking back to Lizard Point

As it happens, Dad’s family came from Cornwall, and his father was the rector of St.Mawgan-in-Pydar (along the north coast between Newquay and Padstow) in the 1920s. We decided to visit, and found it to be a very attractive village. The old rectory is huge – as the old Vicarage in Shapwick was before the fire around 1910. It’s a good indication of the change in culture of the UK over the last hundred years: although clergy today are very generously housed, there’s no comparison with the enormous houses of one hundred years ago. Either way, it’s all a bit different from the “Son of Man [who] has no place to lay his head”.


A couple of miles coastwards lies Mawgan Porth, a lovely seaside cove.


Mawgan Porth


Mawgan Porth near sunset

We had less fortune, weather-wise, when we went to Crantock, where Jen’s granmother lived and where her family used to go for summer holidays. It was greyer, windier and rainier, and the tide was in… but still good enough for a nice family photo!


First family visit to Crantock!

Holiday pics

One sign of a changed life is less time for blogs! I wonder why that might be…? Although a certain little baby is feeding on my left as I type…

Jen and I had a good holiday around the end of August. We spent the first week with Jen’s mum in Kenilworth, which meant we also saw lots of Andrew, Rachael, Sophie and George. Mat and Claire also came up from Devon with their younger two, Austin and Louie.

Despite having been to Kenilworth quite a few times, I’d never been to the castle before. It’s an impressive set of ruins, part of the charm of which is that it hasn’t been extensively renovated. Its most famous association is with Queen Elizabeth I, who visited three times when she was consorting with Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester. It had also been the site of the longest siege in English history in 1266.

Kenilworth Castle

Sophie is very excited about her little cousin; Joshua has a way to go with reciprocating…

Sunday lunch on a large scale… Clockwise from left: Louie, Claire, Sophie, Jen, Andrew, Margaret, Austin, Mat, George, Rachael

We then spent a few days with my Mum, almost literally on the Welsh border on the bank of the River Teme, which flowed at the bottom of the garden of the cottage we had rented.

View of the River Teme near where we stayed

The cottage was an idyllic location for wildlife – highlights being the nuthatches that regularly visited the bird feeders, and the grey wagtail that flitted around the river by the garden on one of the days.

One of the nuthatches which wwre frequent visitors.

Grey wagtail flitting along the Teme at the bottom of the garden.

On our final morning we went in search of the source of the river Teme – or at least, according to the map there’s an obvious stream which is the furthest of several at the upper end of the valley.

That’s the source of the river Teme – with Jen and Joshua.

Before heading back home late afternoon, we also managed a walk along Offa’s Dyke. Unlike Hadrian’s Wall, very little is known about it, other than that it was built during the time of Offa, king of Mercia in the second half of the eighth century. It’s just possible this has something to do with Mercia being less significant than the Roman empire, a point which Offa himself might not have fully grasped.

A late lunch on Offa’s Dyke. (If you look closely, you’ll see two very small feet.)

Dad, where’s my fish?

For some strange reason I’ve had less time to go to the Decoy Hide recently – but Jen allows me a little self-indulgence once in a while!

This photo summarises the last couple of months on the lake. I was concentrating on the little egret, before it was photobombed by a grebe carrying fish for its chick!

Photobomb by a grebe while I was focussinhg on the little egret!

For once I had the sense to follow the grebe and was rewarded by one of my better feeding sequences.

Meanwhile I was less successful with the little egret photos because I kept on over-exposing – a flaw in a number of my photos this time!

Little egret picking prey off the lake surface

If you’ve ever tried to have a quiet romantic moment with your spouse and then one of your kids bursts in, you’ll feel some sympathy with one of the grebe pairs. They were going through a courtship ritual – in itself very unusual for midsummer, which made me wonder whether they were thinking of a second brood – only to be interrupted by little ‘un clearly wondering what on earth they were up to!

Ever tried to have a queit romantic moment with your spouse when the little one bursts in?

Mummy? Daddy? What are you up to? I’m hungry and need feeding!

Feeding the chicks was the consistent theme throughout the last couple of months – the only difference being the size of the chicks. However there has also been a change in the numbers of chicks: both of the closer pairs started with three but by mid-July were down to two, which conveniently meant that each parent could focus on one chick. The number of herons and egrets around makes me suspect the fate of the other chicks.

Eager chick, eager parent

The family of four opposite the hide

The third pair at the far end of the lake finally had chicks around the beginning of July – but I never saw them afterwards. Given the size of the lake I may simply not have seen them, but as I saw the parents a few times, I fear the herons may have had their way.

The third grebe pair with their two chicks

By mid-August there was only one nearly adult-sized chick left. This could mean one of two things: it could have been a disastrous few weeks for the grebes,or the bigger chicks may have flown elsewhere. I don’t know enough about grebe chicks to know when they disperse – but as they were already easily old enough to dive for protection some while back I am less sure they were gobbled up. In my experience grebes rarely fly, but of the five grebe flights I’ve seen this year, four were on my trip to the lake last week – which leads me to think that the older chicks may just have taken wing and dispersed.

This grebe flew in to have its portrait taken last week

One of my bogey birds, photographically, has been the great white egrets – which are large enough to seem easy to get. My luck changed at the end of June, though, when one arrived close to the hide and started hunting.

This Great White Egret strode around outside the Decoy Hide…

…before striking suddenly

Last week an immature egret showed up close to the hide as well (which you can tell by the all-yellow bill).

Immature great white egret prowling around to the left of the hide

Immature great white egret prowling around to the left of the hide

Finally, a non-bird… I tend not to concentrate on the abundant dragon-flies,  but this four-spot chaser perched on a reed very close by.

Four-spotted chaser outside the Decoy Hide

Sleeping soundly and feeding prolifically: Joshua’s first month

It’s usually not considered good form to sleep soundly while people visit you – except when you’re just a few weeks’ old, and the whole ‘being alive’ thing seems only slightly more comprehensible than it was on day one.

Jen and I are learning loads – such as, making sure the frills on a nappy lie outwards, or there will be another leakage and another soiled babygrow. We’ve also learned that arriving somewhere doesn’t mean we’ll actually get to see much of where we’ve arrived: we’ve twice been to National Trust properties and spent two or three hours oscillating between the cafe and baby change faciliity. Despite these little challenges, we’re finding that the whole learning experience is very enjoyablzzzzz…

We’ve had a few guests, which has also been a privilege and joy. Both Margarets have stayed twice, and agreed with each other that my mum would be Grandma and Jen’s mum would be Grandmama (which she is to George and Sophie). While they were both here we went to viist Montacute House, near Yeovil. Andrew and Rachael have also visited a few times with Sophie and George: Sophie’s a little excited about her new cousin!

With the Grandmargarets on the clothes peg at Montacute House

In Yeovil with Rachael, Sophie, Andrew and George.

We were especially grateful to two sets of guests who insisted on cooking for us: firstly Sharon and Jon Whitmarsh who came with Harrison (why we didn’t take a photo when they were here I don’t know), and Charlotte and Jeffrey Bardell, who came with Mary and Katie (Jeffrey being one of Jen’s cousins).

Charlotte, Mary and Katie with Joshua. Photo by Jeff

Jen with Joshua in a sling

We bought an Ergobaby carrier as a must-have for taking Joshua on walks through the countryside… but then discovered that, in the hot weather, he overheated very easily. So we got hold of a sling as well. The sales assistant was astonished when I willingly tried on the sling – every other bloke she’d suggested this to had shied away. I said that I’d been softened up for this by my sister-in-law (Rachael) who’d first persuaded me to carry George in hers for a while.

I’d joked to Jen that we should get a sling in camouflage colours so that I could take Joshua birdwatching, so I was amused when the assistant said she had only black or khaki in stock – even Jen thought khaki was the better option given that choice!

We’ve even had guests over from the USA, though we can’t possibly claim that they travelled over just to see Joshua! First of all Alison Teply arrived with her youger daughters Lydia and Clara: Alison went to the same school as Jen in Warwick, and they both did research in Cambridge at the same time, before Alison got married and went to live across the pond.

Lydia, Clara and Alison Teply, Jen, Joshua yawning, and grandmama.

We were delighted also to welcome Ed and Nan McCallum, who are on their first trip to the UK. Ed was my pastor for a year-and-a-half when I lived in Tucson, Arizona, in the mid-90s. I loved being part of New Covenant church because for me it was the first time that I felt part of a church family, and I greatly valued the friendships that grew there. It was great to be able to catch up with them about what’s happened in the 23 years since I left. After leaving Tucson, Ed served in Chicago at the headquarters of the Evangelical Presbyterian church (of which New Covenant Church was a part). He left recently to become part of ITEN, a mission agency dedicated to empowering and educating church leaders in the developing world.

Ed and Nan McCallum with Jen and Joshua

We were also delighted to meet with Richard and Catherine East, and their daughters Marianne and Amy, at Montacute House. They’re serving in Japan with OMF, working with students.

On the clothes peg at Montacute House with Amy, Marianne, Richard and Catherine East

We also did a barbecue for some local families who have recently had babies themselves: Lizzie came with Ewan and her older son Ollie, Rob and Rachel with Hugo, and Adam and Heather with Alice.

Rachael, Ollie, Lizzie, Adam, Rich, Jen, Heather – with Hugo (very alert), Joshua and Alice (not very alert).

Let me finish with a few other photos that we like.

Joshua with Jen

Dad time

Mum time