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Golden Boots The Comeback King
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One of the birds I see on the almost daily walk-round of my local patch in Mid Suffolk and also at many other of the places I go birding in Suffolk is the Little Egret.

Now a common bird throughout most of Britain the Little Egret has gone from depletion to non existence and back to relatively common status. Little Egrets are much smaller than the Grey Heron; it’s also a more delicate looking bird, with a slender neck, a pure, snowy white plumage and contrasting black bill, jet black legs and yellow feet. It’s the feet that can look golden in bright sunshine earning it the nickname of, “Golden Boots” in birding circles. (Although, if you see one without yellow feet don’t get excited it’s probably not a rarity, it’s just a juvenile.)

I often see them ahead of me along the fringes of the river when out walking, sifting through the edges of the shallows with a hesitant stately grace. Like all members of the heron family they have inordinate amounts of patience often standing for long periods waiting for a small aquatic creature to appear. They are quite energetic for a Heron species though, sometimes walking through or even running about agitating water to stir up their prey. Little Egrets are usually solitary feeders, but highly gregarious when roosting or nesting. Large colonies of up to ten nests per tree have been recorded.

It’s a difficult bird to miss and can often appear quite ghost-like lifting off the water’s edge silently, when disturbed, especially, against a leaden winter sky, but almost disappearing when seen in bright sunlight.

In the breeding season they acquire attractive, striking, elegant lacy plumes from the back of the crown, breast and mantle and this feature was the cause of their demise in the not too distant past.

Egrets were common fare on the dining tables of the Manor Houses and Palaces of Great Britain in the 15th Century and by the mid 16th century they had probably become extinct. Their plumage and in particular their plumes have been a sort after fashion accessory since from at least the 17th Century. In the 19th Century there was an explosion of demand for Egret and other bird plumage across Europe, leading to a major decline in this and other species. As a consequence, Egrets were hunted to near extinction for their plumes which were favoured as decoration for the hats that adorned the heads of, the ‘fashionistas’ of Paris, London and New York. At one time Egret plumes were worth more than gold! Egrets were also ‘farmed’ for their plumage on large Egret farms.

The Royal Society for the protection of Birds (RSPB) was originally established in the late 19th Century as a protest against this use of wild bird feathers in the clothing industry. They were originally known as the ‘Plumage League’. There were only two rules of the society:

Those members should discourage the wanton destruction of birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection.

That lady members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any kind of bird not killed for the purposes of food, the Ostrich only accepted.

RSPB Rules 1899

Little Egrets first bred in Britain in Dorset in 1996. They have since spread across much of Britain. The species is now a fairly common sight in suitable habitat here in Suffolk and across the UK as far north as southern Scotland. This was a natural range expansion, post-persecution, carrying on from an earlier spread into Western and Northern France. They can be seen almost anywhere near water, on rivers, on flooded fields, ponds, shores and marshes.

I remember when I first moved to Suffolk 25 yrs ago getting a message, “Little Egret at Walberswick” my first reaction was to jump into the car and go and see the bird as I had never seen one in Britain, let alone Suffolk! They were a headline British rare bird then despite being been a common bird in Europe. I did not see the bird that day despite a lengthy search and in retrospect; I suppose I need not have bothered.

In February I counted nineteen along two and a half miles of the River Gipping and at Alton Water I saw sixty five feeding at a secluded part of the reservoir. Suffolk Birds 2010* just published outlines the remarkable geographic spread of this bird across Suffolk-for example reports came from 38 sites in West Suffolk, 400 reports in south Suffolk included an impressive 120 birds on the Stour Estuary in October. If you go to the 1990 edition of the report only one bird was reported that year and none reported in 1989.

I saw my first one here on my patch in mid Suffolk ten years ago. First one appeared irregularly, then a pair, then four then six and so on until in January 2012 I had the count of 19 birds. Birds such as Turtle Dove, Spotted Flycatcher, Lesser Woodpecker and even Cuckoo are now very rare or even missing altogether on my local patch and in many parts of Suffolk. In contrast the rise of the Little Egret is an ornithological success story which is probably the result of global warming a true come back king!

The question in my mind is will this continue? Wild birds can be susceptible to extreme weather, though the Little Egret seems to have survived the recent hard winters of 2009 and 2010 well enough with no major decline in the resident population. A protracted hard winter lasting months could curb Little Egrets considerably.

I heard one account of a roosting group of 44 being found dead in France under a roost tree after a particularly cold night.

Our resident population is complimented by winter visitors from the continent and this enhances numbers considerably. There also appears to be a distinct movement inland during winter as I see many more here in Mid Suffolk than I do when I’m doing my BTO Webs count on the River Deben in mid and late winter.

Similar, but much rarer birds which occur in Suffolk infrequently are the Cattle Egret and the Great White Egret. As their name suggests Cattle Egrets seek out grazing animals which they accompany closely to forage on disturbed insect life. Great White Egrets are much larger birds with snake like necks and distinctive yellow bill.

Fact File

Latin name: Egretta garzetta

Size: length 55-65cm wing span: 88-95cm

Weight: 350-550g

Habitat: shallow lakes, pools and gently flowing rivers. Estuaries and coastal waters

Food: small fish and amphibians, larval insects also crustaceans, worms and small mammals.

Calls: mostly silent away from colonies and roost sites snarling, quacking and croaking at colonies.

BTO Conservation status: Amber

European Population: 61,000 to 84,000 pairs

UK breeding population: 666 pairs 2005-9 winter: 4500, 2004-9

Snapshot: American ornithologist Frank Chapman counted 40 species of birds including Little Egret in the streets of Manhattan in 1886. These had been hunted, killed and plucked and positioned on the hats of three quarters of the 700 women he saw out walking.

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