Nature Notes: Little Egret makes spectacular comeback

Little Egrets can often be seen around the South Devon coastline

Little Egrets can often be seen around the South Devon coastline - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the welcome return of the peregrine, a bird of prey that can now increasingly be seen in and around the Bay.

Another bird that has also made a spectacular comeback is the dainty and exquisitely beautiful Little Egret.

This gorgeous white heron, with its trademark black legs and bright yellow feet, can often be seen around the South Devon coastline.

In fact, just the other morning I was watching one, stalking over the rocky outcrop - keeping a beady eye open for small fish and crustaceans in the weedy rockpools - just below Corbyn Head.

Now, If I’d spotted this bird back in the 1980s, my sighting would have caused a serious kerfuffle in ornithological circles. Until recently, the Little Egret was a rather rare visitor from the Mediterranean.

However, this all changed in 1996; in that year it bred, for what was alleged by many naturalists, the first time at Brownsea Island, Dorset, and then subsequently began to expand its range across the UK.

Numerous people have put this ‘Egret expansion’ simply down to climate change; its march through England being facilitated by warmer temperatures.

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But is this really the case?

In September 1465, there was a most extravagant feast held to celebrate the installation of Archbishop Neville of York. Held at Cawood Castle, this truly gargantuan meal consisted of hundreds of thousands of birds and beasts, including more than 1,000 Egrets!

Thomas Bewick, the famed engraver and naturalist, also mentions the Little Egret in his famous, A History of British Birds (1804), and refers to the Archbishop’s feast in which 1,000 of these birds were served up, adding succinctly: “No wonder the species has become nearly extinct in this country!”

But this elegant little bird wasn’t only hunted for its flesh; during the breeding season it develops long, soft plumes on its head and neck and these were once highly sought after to augment ladies’ hats.

Thankfully, more enlightened times may have given the species just the break it deserved and thus allowed it to recolonise past territories. Whatever the reason, it makes a truly delightful addition to our list of bird species.