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.