WE have lived in Lancashire near the Ribble for about eight years (the move from London was an awful protracted business which I may recount some time if I can bear it) and in the last couple of years we have seen the occasional little egret (Egretta garzetta) on the river.
It’s related to the familiar grey heron but is about half the size, and bright white. It has black legs and big yellow feet. It is its misfortune, as I will explain, to have two long plumes on the nape of its neck in the breeding season.
Little egrets prefer warm climates and are found throughout southern Europe, the Middle East, much of Africa and Asia. They were common in Britain in the Middle Ages. A thousand were served at the banquet to celebrate the enthronement of George Neville as Archbishop of York in 1465. Not long after, thanks to a combination of over-hunting and the advent of the Little Ice Age which began around the 16th century, they disappeared from Britain.
The Victorian craze for feathers to adorn hats was nearly the final nail in the coffin for the little egret. Millions were killed and imported – according to Birds Britannica by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, in 1887 one London dealer sold 2million egret skins, though this figure would have included the American snowy egret, which was persecuted even more relentlessly. (The massacre of many species of birds for their feathers all over the world, including ostriches, parrots, flamingoes, roseate spoonbills, great egrets, pheasants, storks, kittiwakes, hummingbirds, birds of paradise, great crested grebes and peafowl, led to the formation of the Society for the Protection of the Birds in 1891, which gained a Royal Charter in 1904. How good it would be if the RSPB were still protecting birds instead of endorsing the wind turbines which kill them on an industrial scale.)
By the 1950s, the little egret was restricted to southern Europe, and protection laws were introduced. As a result the population soon rebounded and they reappeared in this country around the 1990s. I first saw them from a train travelling along that stretch of the Great Western Railway (‘God’s Wonderful Railway’) which runs along the Devon coast through Dawlish. The first confirmed breeding was on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, Dorset, in 1996. (The island is a rare stronghold of red squirrels, though it is inadvisable to get too close as this is the only population in Britain which carries the leprosy virus.)
I am not sure if little egrets are breeding on the Ribble yet, but the bird community think that if not they will establish themselves soon. I now see one more often than not, patrolling a length of bank or in the shallows where it seems to find plenty of things to eat, small fish and other aquatic creatures. There is sometimes one in the fields, and Alan took this picture, which he is convinced will win him the title ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’.
It is the white blip towards the back left of the field. Not so easy, this wildlife photography lark.
Here is a real prize contender, a stunning picture of three roe deer taken not all that far from here by our friend Simon Caldwell.
Simon also sent some pictures of bramblings (Fringilla montifringilla) at Martin Mere reserve in Lancashire run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. These are winter visitors from their northern Europe homelands which occasionally come in great numbers, a so-called irruption. Here are a couple of Simon’s pictures.
They are very like our native chaffinches (Fringilla coelebs), and often mix with them. Here is a male chaffinch for comparison.
Mysteries of the Lancashire County Council Highways Department continued: Last week I wrote about the country road we live on and its assortment of potholes, including this one:
Lo and behold, within a couple of days it had been filled in. (Of course I take full credit – I’m sure Notes from the Sticks is required reading at County Hall, Preston.)
However it was obviously too much trouble to take away the damaged traffic cone, or to mend any of the other potholes, two of which are within sight of this one:
If anyone can explain the logic of not mending a small hole until it becomes a big one (and as I walk this route most days I can say with certainty that these are getting wider and deeper by the week) I’d love to hear it.
Don’t forget that our reader ‘linuslimmy’ is collating anecdotal evidence about bird and insect numbers, either increases or decreases (or even static). If we get enough entries we may be able to see some sort of national picture. Send your comments and observations to this address: firstname.lastname@example.org.