A month ago I wrote about the recovery of our otter and badger populations. That is not the only good news story relating to local wildlife: a beautiful cousin of the grey heron, the little egret, is now colonising our marshes and wetlands. As recently as the 1980s, bird guides described it as a ‘rare vagrant’, with odd individuals turning up around the south coast during the winter. More or less unnoticed here though, the European mainland population had been expanding north and west throughout the 20 Century.
Little egrets are snowy white with black bills and legs, and bright yellow feet. In America they are called the ‘birds with the golden slippers’. They are about two thirds the size of grey herons and, like them, feed on small fish and other water creatures. They are widespread around the world, and in some places they used to be extensively hunted for their plumes of feathers. The RSPB came into existence (as the Society for the Protection of Birds) to campaign against the plumage trade and protect egrets and other species.
Little egrets’ expansion in Europe may be partly down to more modern protection under the European Union’s Birds Directive, and partly to global warming. Like many widespread birds, some of the population migrates and some stays put. Milder winters and warmer summers here encourage more birds to stay and breed. Their arrival and expansion mirrors that of collared doves, which did the same thing about 50 years earlier. Little egrets first bred in Britain in 1996, and in the West Midlands, in Warwickshire, in 2016. There are now about 700 breeding pairs and 4,500 wintering birds in this country.
Thanks to social media we no longer have to wait for annual reports from bodies such as the West Midlands Bird Club to keep track of bird populations. Recently there have been reports of little egrets around Birmingham and the Black Country, for instance in the Sandwell Valley, and at Sheepwash Urban Park in the heart of Tipton. A year ago, a roost of 18 birds was seen at Old Mill Pool in south Birmingham. Roosts of little egrets look like washing hung out to dry on waterside vegetation.
We talk a lot about the importance of greenspace, the success of otters and little egrets highlights the importance of our blue spaces as well.