Bird Watching (UK) - - Challenge -

IWAS JUST SET­TLING down to tuck into some evening grub in the vil­lage of Fethard, Co. Wex­ford, down in the south-east cor­ner of Ire­land, when a late-comer came in. It was 1985, and I was there with a bunch of fel­low ge­ol­ogy un­der­grad­u­ates on a field course. The new ar­rival was my friend Dave Sex­ton and he came up to me with a query about an odd bird he had just seen on his pre-sup­per walk. (I was af­ter all the reg­is­tered bird­watcher of the group). His de­scrip­tion, in a nut­shell, was that it was like a small heron, but all white; and it was only a few hundred yards away. Nat­u­rally, I told him what any bird­watcher at the time would, that his de­scrip­tion sounded like a Lit­tle Egret, but it was such a rare bird that, be­ing a ‘dude’, he couldn’t have just found one. But, I sug­gested that, af­ter sup­per, per­haps he could take me to see the anoma­lous bird, which would doubt­less be a plas­tic bag or a gull or a white dove (thought I). And as soon as the meal was over, we went out, me armed with my an­cient Wray bins and a Ko­dak In­sta­matic cam­era. (In­ci­den­tally, con­trary to pop­u­lar mis­con­cep­tion, the In­sta­matic was not an ‘in­stant cam­era’, like a Po­laroid, it was just a piece of rub­bish, cheap, lit­tle plas­tic box which took ex­tremely ba­sic square pho­tos). And there it was, stand­ing no more than 50m away in a shal­low pool, my first Lit­tle Egret in Bri­tain and Ire­land (well Ire­land, any­way). I took a photo to prove it, and on my 4x4 print it is a white smudge about 1mm long. The youth of to­day know noth­ing of ‘record shots’ of yore! But that was then and this is now. Just like the Col­lared Dove be­fore it, the Lit­tle Egret’s in­va­sion story is re­quired ba­sic learn­ing for ev­ery fledg­ling Bri­tish bird­watcher. Just a few years af­ter my Ir­ish bird, the small white heron started mak­ing gi­ant strides, ex­pand­ing its range from the con­ti­nent into the UK; first breed­ing in 1996 (on Brownsea Is­land, Dorset), and now with per­haps 750 UK breed­ing pairs and ap­proach­ing 5,000 win­ter­ing in­di­vid­u­als. When I started do­ing ‘bird races’ around Peter­bor­ough in the early noughties, the Lit­tle Egret was still pretty scarce here, and our team once re­ported (by phone) one we had found to other teams, so they didn’t miss out. Of course, we were later ac­cused of abus­ing the egret’s scarcity to send our ‘op­po­nents’ on a time-wast­ing wild goose chase, but that is an­other story. Now, the Lit­tle Egret is an ev­ery­day species, which I ex­pect to see on any bird­ing out­ing. We have even had more than 200 at a time on the Nene Washes.

But this is not some iso­lated anom­aly, There are, as I write in Novem­ber, prob­a­bly more than 100 Great Whites in the UK

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