I admit it: I succumbed to temptation last week. I went on a twitch. OK, in fact it was two twitches. Both after the same bird. But this great white egret is a special bird with a bit of a story to it – and was only 15 miles away!
I’d seen on the Gloster Birder website that it had arrived at Ashleworth Ham last month. This is an area of flood-plain on the banks of the Severn close to Cheltenham, which is known as a good birding site. According to my bird book, the Great White Egret lives in SE Europe, and only as far west as Italy. As this one had a set of rings on it, its life history could be learned.
The records revealed that it was ringed as a chick in May last year along one of the tributaries of the Loire, about 50 miles north of Nantes. Sometime later it disdained the local fish and frogs, crossed the channel and was then seen in Lancashire in late September, moving from site to site until the end of January. It then showed up at an industrial estate in Cardiff for a couple of days, before arriving in Gloucestershire in mid-March.
At the beginning of last week it flew off to Slimbridge, the world-famous wetland conservation centre. Feeling sure it would settle there for a while, I went with a friend to see it – only to discover later that it had turned its bill up at the Slimbridge fish, and returned to Ashleworth Ham.
The next day I went there with my mother. A fellow observer said that it had just flown a short distance down the road, and was now next to a couple of swans. Off we went, and there it was, having a quiet kip.
Shortly afterwards it awoke, and began to hunt. Whereas a heron will sit and wait, wait, wait, grab-and-gobble, the egret strode elegantly and purposefully before the occasional strike: though it would take a more heron-like mind than mine to say which strategy is more effective.
About 50 birds of this species are ringed each year by a project in the Loire-Atlantique region. This is far further north-west than the bird book had said. It happens that in recent years, large heron-like bird species have been expanding into new territories: this is why little egrets, for example, have gone from being exceptionally rare in the UK to becoming quite common. Great white egrets – of which there are half a dozen or so known in the UK at the moment – are still very rare, but might be becoming more common.
This one will struggle to find a mate here – but its all-yellow bill shows it to be a non-breeder (it will go black when ready to breed). There may be plenty of time for it to satisfy its adolescent wanderlust before settling down.