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.

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

Birding habits – new and old

View of the Camp Lane Pools, Grimley

Great White Egret at Grimley

About four miles from where I live is an important wetland site which is attracting some rather impressive birds. This is the Camp Lane Pools at Grimley, and even while I’ve been going there’s been a Great White Egret, which stayed for a few weeks. Being so close I’ve begun to drop in there on a regular basis, adopting it as my local patch.

Wetland habitats are unusual in the Midlands, and within the county this one is second only to Upton Warren. In the last year or so highlights have included grey plover, curlew sandpiper, little stint and a barred warbler. An impressive number of grebes have bred there, both great crested and little (which would be my nomination for Britain’s most under-rated bird).

There are several other pools between here and Holt which also attract notable birds, and with the ongoing gravel extraction by Tarmac nearby there is likely to be the development of more. With some strategic management it could become a very important area for bird life, but it does need some visionary thinking: at present the Camp Lane Pools site is up for sale, and local birders are understandably anxious about what may happen in the near future.

Three heron species at Grimley: great white egret, grey heron and little egret

Green sandpiper on the Rushy at Slimbridge

On Monday (a day off) I went down to Slimbridge, which is attracting a large number of birds at the moment. As it happened many of the headline birds were only viewable from the distance, but I had a wonderfully close view of a green sandpiper on the Rushy Pen. It was wading up and down a narrow channel just in front of the hide: being able to see it clearly even without binoculars helped me to appreciate how tiny it is.

I ended the day by going down to the Holden Tower, which seemed like a futile visit as the birds were so distant. However, a couple of others who were in the hide suddenly started taking an excessive interest in one of the window frames. They beckoned me over – and there was a brown long-eared bat, trying to roost in the corner. It didn’t seem to appreciate the attention as it tried to bury itself further into the corner, but as the wood was unyielding it adopted a more comfortable position.

Brown long-eared bat at Slimbridge

A contemplative New Wine?

I’ve just come back from a brilliant week at New Wine – despite Thursday’s deluges! Although there was some great teaching in the seminars – some of it at a greater depth than I’ve heard before – there was also some lovely times of fellowship with a terrific group of people!

New Wine buddies tending a barbecue: Simon, Athena, Les, Judith

Throughout the week there was great worship and teaching in Venue 1, one of the two main venues on site, but there was also a large range of seminars during the day. This is one of the strengths of New Wine because it gives the opportunity for a wide range of speakers to tackle a large array of subjects, from the general to the specialist.

For me, two major highlights were Charlie Cleverley’s seminars on Monday and Tuesday. The first of these was on “The dark night of the soul and surviving the desert” – motivated in part by the sudden death in a traffic accident earlier this year of his administrator at St Aldate’s. Deep grief (of one kind or another) is a normal part of life, at some stage for most people. For some reason God allows us to go through this – and thereby to attain spiritual depths which we could not have reached otherwise. Likewise, we may also experience spiritual deserts: having once known God, we now find ourselves groping around for His presence. These are experiences that God will allow us to go through – and to discover the preciousness of leaning on God in the darkness. The ‘dark night’, which John of the Cross speaks about, is when we learn about God’s intimacy.

The following day, Charlie spoke about contemplative prayer. Some of the greatest Christian ministry has been birthed out of people experiencing visions of God, which so transform their experience of who God is that they are impelled to proclaim His love far and wide. These visions are not a product of human activity, but a gift from God himself. He emphasised the sharp contrast between eastern meditation, which is aims to empty the mind, and Christian meditation, in which we fill our minds with scripture. There are three key steps, which run counter to secular western culture, which are essential to cultivating the experience of the presence of God: it’s essential to stop, to slow down completely from the busyness of ordinary life; to look, especially to use scripture as a springboard; and to listen, tuning out from our own minds and tuning into God and what he wants to say and for us to experience. (I’m now reading his book on this subject, “Epiphanies of the Ordinary“, which is brilliant.)

Much as the teaching was good, it was the fellowship with those I was with that made this week so good. I shared a tent with Les Jevins, and Simon Jones pitched next door; we were joined for much of the week by Athena Hay and Judith Beecham. It was a delight and a joy to share the time with such a great group – we blended well! In some ways this whole week epitomised why the last year in Cheltenham was so good – I knew none of the others this time last summer.

On Wednesday, the rest day, I took the opportunity to visit the Shapwick Heath nature reserve – part of a string of reedbeds along the Somerset Levels which are acquiring national fame for rare heron species. I bumped into an RSPB volunteer who said that the problem is that the area is so vast that rare birds could spend weeks there without ever being seen: he mentioned two night herons that he’d spotted flying over last year, never to be seen again.

Earlier this year, Britain’s first ever pair of Great White Egrets bred successfully there; just as the excitment died down, a second pair was reported – and it was these that I went to see. Fortunately a couple of local volunteers had their scopes pointed at the nest, and every so often the large chicks would stand up in their nest, stretch and flap their wings. Then mum arrived, regurgitated food into each of their gullets, and flew off. A wonderful sight!

Catching a barn owl…

Being stared at by a barn owl is a strange experience: you just know you are guilty.

I don’t normally do a midweek blog article, but I wanted to share some of the wildlife images that I took last weekend – and I think you’ll agree that they’re better than some of the rather patchy ones I’ve posted before!

When I returned to Durham, I read on the local bird forum that there’s a pair of barn owls which are readily visible at Coatham Stob, a woodland west of Stockton. I went to look on the Saturday evening and, sure enough, about an hour before sunset, this pale white form drifted effortlessly and silently into view, visited the nest box briefly, and ghosted out with surprisingly slow, heavy wingbeats, onto its regular circuit. Twenty minutes later it came back with prey: a shrew, according to a photograph by local birding expert, Ian Forrest.

Barn owl landing with prey: a vole, probably.

A week later I went back, armed with my own camera. I thought that the owl was big enough to be photographed, and that I could also get close enough. I had also discovered an extra function on my camera: burst mode, in which a series of still photos are taken continuously while I hold the shutter down. Thus, I managed to catch the owl just as it was landing on its perch. There’s a large slice of luck in this: I doubt whether I could repeat the trick in a dozen attempts!

Avocets

Earlier in the day I’d visited Greenabella Marsh, which now has more than 20 avocets: these, for me, are ‘wow’ birds, like goosanders. Later on, before venturing to Coatham Stob, I was wandering around the back of a lake and chanced upon a great-crested grebe nest – another ‘wow’ bird. For me there’s an uncomfortable juxtaposition between the solidity of heavy industry and and the fragile beauty of wildlife.

I’ve uploaded the best 9 pictures from the day to the flickr photo gallery site. If you’d like to see them, click here.

Meanwhile… an update on the Great White Egret from Loïc Marion of CNRS in Rennes. Since leaving Gloucestershire it went back to Cardiff for a few days, and was seen yesterday at the Catcott reserve in Somerset. Any more updates I’ll add to the egret story here.

Wildlife and industry

A ringing history

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.

The Great White Egret, on the right, having a snooze.

The great white egret, on the prowl.

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.