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.

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

Moles and drought – plus a little owl

Just over a week ago, the three of us were going with Katie, a friend from London, along the back lane from Shapwick to Ashcott. I was focusing on Joshua so, if Katie hadn’t exclaimed, would have completely missed an unusual sight: a mole sprinting – as much as a mole can sprint – along the side of the lane. It crossed over and dived into a roadside ditch, just before a van drove past.

For once I managed to think quickly enough and realised that my iPhone was the best chance I had of recording the event.

Mole running along the back road from Shapwick to Ashcott

My delight at seeing a live mole for the first time in my life was tempered by the realisation that its running along the road – as opposed to going along a deep tunnel underground – was almost certainly a reaction to the drought.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that this is happening quite widely. On the Mammal Society’s Facebook page one member (“Bog Myrtle”) reported having come across four dead moles in her travels in West Dorset, and another came across two near Bristol – in both cases, in places where previously they hadn’t encountered any. A local Somerset photographer recently obtained a shot of a fox with a mole in its mouth. It’s not possible to quantify such anecdotal evidence but it does suggest that many moles are suffering badly because of the drought.

Mole running along the back road from Shapwick to Ashcott

I tried a little Internet research but couldn’t get much further than rather general statements. I read that in drought moles are known to head above ground in search of water. I also read that they go down to their deepest burrows, to find worms which have responded to drought by digging deeper. This is a little contradictory and I’m left with a feeling that there’s some guesswork going on.

Seeing this particular mole has prompted me to ask some obvious questions. What if the drought is so long that the worms descend below a mole’s deepest burrows? And what if the ground is so dry and hard that a mole can’t excavate any deeper? Would that not impel a mole in desperation to head in the opposite direction, up out of its network of burrows to find somewhere – anywhere – with food? Even if that meant sprinting along tarmac? And, more importantly, once it does that – what are its chances of survival?

I could easily have missed it, but I haven’t found evidence of research about the effect of drought on moles. This region could present a good one to study because there’s an interesting contrast between the dry Polden Hills, where this mole was running, and the marshy fields a mile away in the Levels, which remain moist not far below the surface. The weather conditions would be almost identical. Maybe this could be a potential project for a field biologist?!

Little Owl near Moorlinch

On a more cheerful note, Jen and I encountered a little owl near Moorlinch a few weeks back. I chanced upon it again a couple of weeks later and, as I happened to have a camera with me, stopped to photograph it. As these were my first decent photographs of an owl, I was well pleased. Nevertheless, I decided that it was worth trying for better photos… so a week later I obtained a pass out from Jen 🙂 and headed back to the Moorlinch area. I did a couple of circuits of the area, and drew a blank. Then I noticed a familiar shape on the top of a small barn, and gradually approached closer. It was a very obliging bird as by the end I’m sure it saw me directly, but didn’t fly off.

Little Owl near Moorlinch

Little Owl near Moorlinch

Little Owl near Moorlinch

Reflecting on the “Eyes on Wildlife” weekend

The “Eyes on Wildlife” weekend (from June 15 to 17) was great fun, and many people seem to have enjoyed it.

Friday evening in Burtle Village Hall was a sell-out for the evening with Dominic Couzens, the well-known wildlife writer, who came to speak about “Birds Behaving Badly”. We’d expected to hear about bird behaviour, and there was plenty of that – what we hadn’t realised was how entertaining a speaker he is! He soon built up a good rapport with the audience.

We had a meal with the talk, and the combination worked for a relaxed and enjoyable evening. The first course was lasagna, after which Dominic did the first part of his talk. After dessert, and before the second half, I asked Dominic about his faith, and he gave us a really genuine and honest description of his journey: he’d been an atheist at school but it was the friendship of people at the Christian Union that made a real impact shortly after he arrived at university.

Dominic Couzens (front right) fielding questions at the Village Hall after a great talk and supper. Photo: Henry Routley

We learned a lot about bird behaviour! As an example: we learned that at a rookery in windy weather, the dominant birds took shelter low in the trees. However, in fine weather they perched higher up… so they weren’t pooped on by birds above them!

Huge thanks to the Burtle team for this led by Rosemary Tucker and ably helped by, amongst others, Jane Ponsillio, Rosie Tilbury and Sue Ball. Chris Mockridge also brought the audiovisual equipment.

Throughout the weekend, the photographic exhibition ran in Shapwick Church. Much as I like taking bird photos myself, the ones on display were in a different league – they were outstanding! The main displays were provided by Carl Bovis, James Cawte, Dan Hargreaves, Kim Hemmings, Chris Hooper, Andrew Kirby and Colin Lawrence. Their generous contributions were very much appreciated. Several of the photographers arrived on the Thursday afternoon and there was some enjoyable banter flying around: some of them had known of each other via Facebook forums but hadn’t previously met.

Some of the photographers who were exhibiting: Carl Bovis, Colin Lawrence, Andrew Kirby, and Chris Hooper, with Alison Everett who did so much to help make the event happen.

The wildlife photography exhibition just before opening time

For me, one of the most notable photos was one of a stoat running on ice at Greylake: Carl had seen it in the undergrowth, and had set his camera in expectation that it would run out. When it did, he was ready. From this I learned that the ability to anticipate what an animal will do next is a really important skill to learn!

Stoat on ice, by Carl Bovis

Another favourite of mine is an extraordinary action shot by Chris Hooper of two territorial grebes chasing each other. The intensity of the moment is highlighted by the open beak of the chasing grebe and the plume of spray to the left. Chris told me that the grebe fleeing wouldn’t give up and kept going back for more encounters!

Grebe chase, captured by Chris Hooper

The cafe that ran alongside the exhibition was a major part of its success. As Carl Bovis put it, it was due “no doubt in no small part to the delicious cakes on offer for visitors!” Light lunches were served, as well as fresh coffee, tea, scones and cakes – all of which helped to create a relaxed ambience.

Very many thanks to the Shapwick team led by Helen Wade, who was assisted by a large team, including Sue Sellick, Rosie Tilbury and Mary Tucker, as well as Rosemary & Chris Hargreaves, Brian Tilbury, Ann Cattermole, Jan Jones, Ken Wade, Kirsty Sellick, Jo Wright and my wife!

The café and exhibition in full swing

Some wildlife encountered at Muddy Church by the Decoy Lake!

On the Saturday afternoon, we had a Muddy Church – an outdoor variant on Messy Church. Over twenty primary-ages kids came with their parents. Fiona Livesley, our inspiring and indefatigable leader, had devised a really good set of activities for the children as they walked through woodland and meadow to the Decoy Lake. There, we had a picnic, before descending on the Decoy Hide in force – fortunately there were no birders there to disturb at the time!

Children and parents head towards the Decoy Lake on Shapwick Heath

There was an early start on Sunday for a couple of dozen folk, for a bird walk led by Alison Everett. We saw several Great White Egrets – now a regularly breeding colony in the Avalon Marshes having first bred only three years ago – and several Great Crested Grebes with their chicks. After the walk, we went for a full cooked breakfast at the Ashcott Village hall.

Freda Prime and Margaret Trimm and their team in Ashcott produced the full cooked breakfast for 24 on the Sunday morning, which would be a notable achievement for most people, except that it doesn’t quite beat the 70 to 100 they’ve cooked for at the Ashcott Big Breakfast!! They then hosted the evening at the playing field. Many thanks also to them.

The weekend concluded with two Celtic-style services, at Chilton Polden in the morning and on the playing field in Ashcott in the evening. There were two guest speakers: David Maggs, the diocesan environment adviser, and Caroline Pomeroy, the Director of Climate Stewards, both of whom encouraged us to think about and act on our responsibilities for climate and the environment. Rowena Steady led the music beautifully in the church services, and was joined by Andy Savage and the rest of Polden Praise in the evening.

One of the best aspects of the weekend is that it has been a great team effort of the Polden Wheel churches, and I’m indebted to the many who gave so much of their time and energy. I need to give a special mention to Alison Everett, an avid birder herself, who gave many hours for each of the events, particularly the exhibition and the bird walk, and her practical support has been invaluable.Her dedication to the weekend has been exceptional and greatly appreciated.

I hope the teams and all those who’ve visited enjoyed the weekend as much as I have!

Territorial battles on the Decoy Lake

Although chasing rare birds is fun, it’s not practical for me these days 🙂 ! So I’ve been watching the grebes on the Decoy Lake at Shapwick Heath for a few weeks now, and I’m finding that I’m learning much more than I’d expected. I’m learning to read their behaviour – of which there has been plenty this month.

By the end of February, I reckoned I had sussed out the territories on the lake. The pair that had been there through the winter had the pick of the sites, and chose the area to the left of the hide. One of them (the male?) was notable for defending his patch whenever threatened. To the right of the hide was a more recent pair that quite often invaded the left pair’s territory, with predictable consequences. The boundary between the two seemed to be from the left hand side of the hide to the tor, given the point at which hostilities would begin and end. In the distance, towards the tor and to the left-side of the lake, was another pair which didn’t seem to interact much with the two nearer pairs, and may well have held the whole of the far end of the lake – but were too far away for me to be sure.

Then came the snow. When Jen and I visited the hide on the snowy Friday, it seemed as if there was only one pair on the lake, and given where they emerged from this was probably the pair from the right of the hide – although I was slightly puzzled as this would mean that the wintering pair, despite holding on through the winter, had left.

One grebe pair remained during the snow.

After the snow left the other grebes returned – though apparently not all of them. A few days later I only saw one grebe at the far end: I presumed the other was hidden in or behind the various reed beds. I confidently explained the three territories to a couple who were visiting the hide for the first time – honestly, they seemed genuinely interested! – but the knowledge I was boasting of was no longer true. After they left, I happened to see that there were two pairs on the far left side, with only a few metres separating them, simultaneously doing courtship displays. This was clearly about territory as much as romance. I wish I’d been able to photograph this but they were too distant for a good photo.

The closer of the pairs then chased the other pair off – my next surprise was that the more distant of the two didn’t retreat into the distance, as I’d expected, but across the lake and back to area just to the right of the hide. In fact, as soon as they crossed the line from the hide to the tor, the male (presumably) changed from fleeing to defending. This can be see in the photo below if you click to enlarge.

The tor with grebes in the foreground. The left of the pair has just turned round to repel another grebe which had chased them off.

I discovered later that this was only one skirmish in a longer-running battle. By the time I returned the following week, order had been restored – but there had been a dramatic shift in territories, and I can only infer what had happened. The pair which was based to the right of the hide now seemed to have the freedom of the near half of the lake. Towards the far end of the lake, to the left, another pair was bobbing on the lake, calmly asleep.

What battles had taken place? Who had won? And which grebe was where? The simplest assumption may be that the wintering grebes, to the left of the lake, had been ousted, and they may have then settled at the back of the lake, territory that had been vacated by one of the earlier grebes not returning after the snow. I would have to interview the grebes themselves to produce a more reliable picture!

The advantage of this new arrangement, from my perspective anyway, is that the hide pair are freer to live their lives in front of the hide, without being chased off by the other pair. Take, for example, one extraordinary attempt at fishing….


Oh blast

How on earth the grebe thought it would swallow that size of fish beats me! – and I was hardly surprised when it dropped its potential prize.

The grebes have been amorous all month and would regularly re-unite after a long separation of, say, half an hour, with prodigious headshaking and neck-bending.

The hide pair in the midst of one of their frequent courtship rituals.

I’ve not yet seen a full weed-dance this year in clear view – but came close last week.

Much splashing accompanied the grebes coming together.

“Darling, you’re so romantic, you’ve brought me weed!”

Only one of the pair had brought weed, so the dance ended fairly quickly.

Earlier this week I saw a territorial encounter between two of the grebes, on the far left of the lake, near where the two pairs had been displaying previously, and which confirmed my suspicions about the new territories.

Two of the grebes on the lake square up to each other.

It was only when I looked at the photos below carefully that I realised how far the left grebe had advanced, and how far the right grebe had had to back-paddle! I expected a full-blown fight but the left grebe dived away. He returned to his base, to the right of his hide, and a bit later he and his mate surveyed the territory where the stand-off had taken place, while the grebe that retreated remained a short way off, affecting a lack of interest. The re-configured territories are as I suspected: the hide pair now has the full width of the lake near the hide.

Much as I’m biased towards the grebes, there’s been plenty of other interesting wildlife on the lake. Earlier in the month another birder told me three whooper swans had been seen on the lake the previous evening – had I seen them? I hadn’t, and as we chatted over the next half hour, there was no sign of them. A few minutes after he left, two whooper swans swam in from the back of the lake – why they hadn’t already left for northern Europe was unclear.

Whooper swan passes one of the grebe pairs.

Whooper swans on the Decoy Lake

However, it makes sense to end this post with a couple of grebe portraits.

Great crested grebe on the Decoy Lake at Shapwick Heath

Great crested grebe on the Decoy Lake at Shapwick Heath


Spiralling around at Slimbridge

When Jen and I went with my mother to Slimbridge, I wasn’t expecting a great afternoon of photography. Perhaps it is better to have low expectations! – in fact, the weather turned out to be ideal (unlike the rather showery forecast), and the wildlife was unusually co-operative. It started with some rather showy pintails – a rather classy and elegant duck – which were close to the hides on the Rushy Pen.

Pintail looking elegant at Slimbridge

We then went along the walkway to the Holden Tower, stopping off at the hides along the way. The showpiece hides at Slimbridge are, unfortunately, known for being distant from the birds – but this was not the case for those along the walkway which were adjacent to a couple of flooded fields. While in one, a Little Grebe swam into view just below where we were sat. These birds are often elusive, heard more readily than seen – for example, the ones on Shapwick Heath tend to lurk in the reedbeds, But this one, having no reedbeds to skulk in, was very showy.

This Little Grebe swam into view just below us and stationed itself there for a while.

Little Grebe at Slimbridge

Eventually the Little Grebe swam further out into the floodwater where it proceeded to dive frequently. Meanwhile a couple of shovelers were spiralling around each other. I ignored this strange behaviour until I realised that I was missing something really interesting. This is a deliberate feeding strategy, designed to stir up debris at the bottom to near the surface of the water, which they could then sift for food. In the photos below, notice the wake from the shovelers which spirals outward from them as they rotate around each other.

Spiralling shovelers at Slimbridge

Spiralling shovelers at Slimbridge

The one slight frustration was a group of redshanks and wigeons, which were beautifully arranged, and ideally illuminated by the cloudy sun – but they wouldn’t smile for the camera when I wanted them to!

Smile,please? Redshanks and wigeons being unco-operative

Romance and trash talk in Grebe World

It was early morning by the lake, and there was a hail shower. It wasn’t the sunny start that was forecast, so I sat back and thought, “no chance of the birds doing anything in this weather”. Then I looked across the lake and saw a pair of grebes in the middle of an intense courtship ritual. Even in the hail! But there was a phase of it that I’d never noticed before and was really impressive.

It started out as a normal courtship ritual…

Then one of them (the male?) shot off, turned round, and showed his wings in a magnificent pose.

The female then approached. Although she looks deferential here, in reality she’s just beginning to dive underneath.

They then finish the display with more courtship celebrations.

It was the triumphalist pose that particularly impressed me. It’s been called the ‘cat-display’, which seems an odd choice of name – but I’d not been aware of it until it was so dramatically displayed in the hail.

Dawn had in fact been much clearer and I’d gone in anticipation of a fine morning.

Sunrise towards the Tor from the Decoy Lake.

The Little Grebes revealed themselves more often by their whinnying calls from deep within reedbeds, but one individual showed itself in the morning sun before dashing off, running across the lake surface (a good trick it you’re small enough and fast enough).

Little Grebe in the morning sun.

Cloudy skies really don’t bring out the vivid colouration – but the advantage is that muted colours are easier to photograph: white feathers are otherwise easily overexposed.

Great crested grebe portrait.

Towards the end of the month I decided to go in the afternoon, on the basis that the lighting would be better. But again I was thwarted by sunshine that was only intermittent, and birds that seemed quite elusive. Nevertheless, a pair of little grebes swam across, showing off the finery of their breeding colours.

Little grebes in breeding plumage

By now there were three pairs of Great Crested Grebes on the lake, but none of them were being co-operative as far as I was concerned! They looked like they’d done their work for the day – that is, until the end, when I had begun to pack up, having removed the camera mount. The pair nearest the hide (but mostly obscured by reeds), swam into the middle and began to display. I then saw another pair had arrived from the far side, and was also displaying, and yet another was performing strange antics in front. I didn’t know which to look at.

It was only when I looked at the photos that I began to understand what had happened. With three pairs of grebes on the central part of the lake at the same time, the displays may have been more about territory than romance. In the photos below, the foreground grebe was expressing displeasure – and probably asserting his territorial boundary.

One pair of grebes is about to start displaying, while another one shows his displeasure.

“OK, lovebirds, watch what I’m doing… this is the boundary of my territory… you wouldn’t want to come to any harm, would you?”

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the woods, there was plenty happening there as well. I’ve managed to secure a couple of decent Long-tailed tit photos. This may not seem much of a feat as they are common enough – but they are a difficult bird to photograph because they move very fast, and I’ve regularly failed before.

Long-tailed tit by the Decoy lake

I also came across a wintering chiffchaff, trying to find food in frosty ground, which was probably wondering why it hadn’t migrated south in the autumn.

Wintering chiffchaff, by a stream near the Decoy Lake.