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