Walking my regular riverside route to work the other morning, I fell into conversation with a lady who sometimes brought her dogs down to the river. Our conversation flowed through half-a-dozen or more different natural history subjects before turning to the ‘small white heron’ that she had seen here on occasion over recent weeks. Believing it to be a young grey heron because of its size, my companion commented that she hadn’t realised that young herons were white. My response of ‘they’re not; it’s a little egret that you’ve been seeing’ surprised her and underlined how often we make assumptions about what we see based on previous experience. This lady had not heard of little egrets and assumed that any heron-like bird would be a grey heron; after all, that was the one found in all but the most recently published books on Britain’s birds.
To some extent this underlines just how rapidly the little egret has colonised the country. Little egrets were once rare vagrants to Britain, with most arriving in the spring as birds that had overshot their Continental breeding grounds during migration. Then, in 1989, there was an unprecedented influx, followed over subsequent years by records of pairs breeding alongside grey herons at heronries dotted along the south coast. The population quickly expanded – both in size and distribution – with increasing numbers of little egrets seen in Norfolk and the establishment of regular roost sites at Holkham and Titchwell. The first Norfolk breeding attempts took place in summer 2002 and by 2007 (the time of the Norfolk Bird Atlas) in excess of 100 breeding pairs were breeding within the county.
Much of the little egret expansion was focussed on the coast and it has only been over the last couple of years that we have seen increasing numbers of birds well inland. The sight of one on the local river, typically during winter, used to signal a red-letter day but now you almost expect to see one, particularly as more birds now gather on Thetford’s Nunnery Lakes Reserve. Now that my companion knows about the little egret I suspect that more of those who walk the river will come to appreciate this small white heron.