There was no mistaking the large white bird which we had accidentally flushed upon our arrival. The size of a grey heron and with dark legs and feet trailing out behind a striking white body, this was a great white egret, its identity confirmed by the pale bill clearly evident as it flew purposefully away, just forty or so feet above our heads. It was the sort of bird to make you catch your breath, an unexpected sighting of a bird full of character. The egret flew strongly before banking gently to drift down to a pool that lay towards the other end of the site. It seemed likely that we would see this bird again and, just a few hours later, we were rewarded by another sighting, this time of the egret standing erect at the water’s edge just a few metres from the huddled form of a resting grey heron.
The great white egret is no longer the scarce vagrant that it once was. Over recent decades it has colonised western Europe, its breeding population in the Netherlands now numbering in excess of 150 breeding pairs. As well as an increasing number of spring records, associated with individuals overshooting their intended destinations during spring migration, there have been increased numbers wintering in the UK and, most recently, our first confirmed breeding attempts in the form of the two pairs which raised four young in Somerset.
Over the last five years I have seen three different individuals around the brecks and there is a real sense that this large member of the heron family could be the ‘next’ little egret, going from scarce visitor to relatively common resident. Such changes hint at a shifting climate as more southerly species expand their breeding ranges towards the north. What with recent records of breeding purple heron, spoonbill, glossy ibis and cattle egret, it appears that our heron community is about to get all the more interesting.
For the present things remain on the cusp and the sight of any one of these birds still provides that shiver of excitement, something that has faded somewhat in the case of the little egret that has now become such a familiar sight around the Norfolk coast and deep inland.