Egret and heron populations on the increase in Cheshire
- Credit: Amy Lewis
Tom Marshall of the Cheshire Wildlife Trust reports on the remarkable increase in the number of birds which were once thought to be exotic visitors to the county
Around 20 years ago, when I first became absorbed by the now unrelenting grip of birdwatching, you still had to travel quite some distance to see some of our rare and ‘exotic’ birds. When I say travel, what I of course mean at the age of 14 is to get a lift with mum and dad during our summer holidays to Devon and Cornwall. One such bird that graced the pages of the Usborne Spotter’s Guide in the late 1980s and early 1990s was the beguiling and positively tropical-looking little egret.
With its long, sleek black legs and yellow feet, a dagger-like beak and snow-white plumage, the little egret became something of a holy grail on the tick list, with the birdwatcher’s Mecca of Cornwall’s Hayle Estuary seemingly the only place where you stood a chance of spotting one of these Mediterranean wonders. Not that there was anything wrong with our home-grown grey heron, but this almost mythical creature that stalked the mudflats near St Ives added a continental sparkle to a typical British seaside holiday.
Fast-forward just two decades and today, the UK and Cheshire has seen an astonishing colonisation by not just the little egret, but a host of herons and egrets that just a few years ago would have had birdwatchers’ binoculars quivering in anticipation.
No longer the target of a seven hour car journey in a bank holiday traffic jam, little egrets can now be seen across Cheshire and Wirral’s estuaries and increasingly along our rivers and smaller wetlands too. Indeed, on a recent visit to Grange Farm near Chester – at the heart of Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Living Landscape scheme – a little egret quietly dropped in to feed along the banks of the River Gowy, just a couple of miles from the city centre.
After an unprecedented south-coast influx of around 100 egrets in 1989, Cheshire played host to an apparent first nesting attempt by little egrets in 1995, but it wasn’t until 2004 that successful breeding was confirmed in the county at Chester Zoo – a remarkable pairing of an escaped little egret from the zoo’s enclosures and a completely wild egret passing through the north west.
These days, on a winter visit to the Dee estuary, you’re more likely to see a little egret than a grey heron, with their ghostly white outlines now a firm fixture of the saltmarshes of Parkgate and nearby nature reserves.
Look a little more closely though, and your eyes may not be deceiving you if you think you’ve seen an oversized little egret.
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Standing at around a metre tall – similar in stature to the more ubiquitous grey heron – the great white egret is another once rare visitor that is now seen on almost a weekly basis in the region. Apart from its distinctive size when compared to the little egret (it stands at around twice the height) the ‘great white’ also has a yellow beak during winter, and can seem rather more wary and elusive in its behaviour, preferring to stay out on the saltmarshes a little further from view. With a wingspan stretching well beyond 1.5 metres however, there’s no mistaking them when they take to the air.
Sharing the same white plumage, but with perhaps one of the most bizarre beak adaptations in the bird world, is the aptly-named spoonbill.
Another once rare visitor that would send ‘twitchers’ racing across the country, the spoonbill is another addition to the heron renaissance in Britain, with the a small colony nesting in Norfolk just a few years ago – for the first time in around 300 years anywhere in the country.
Although similar in almost every other aspect to our herons and egrets, the spoonbill’s curious ‘spatulate’ bill is shared by just one other bird – the globally-rare and endangered spoon-billed sandpiper of Russia. Where the egrets and herons use patience, stealth and split-second timing in their pursuit of fish, eels and other items on the menu, the spoonbill’s dizzying technique sees it swipe its wide, oval beak from side-to-side through the water, with smaller prey passing through the sensitive tips then quickly gulped up.