Little egrets . . . I’ve seen a few, say’s the BTO’s Graham Appleton

BTO little egret by Al Downie''must credit
BTO little egret by Al Downie''must credit
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If there is one species that will star as a success story in Bird Atlas 2007-11, the massive stocktake of the birds of Britain and Ireland that we are rushing to write up and publish, it’s the little egret.

Just 20 years ago, a sighting of one egret would have made Suffolk birdwatchers very happy. These days, they’re everywhere – nature reserves, gravel pits, river banks, wet fields or flying overhead.

In flight they can look confusing because the head is neatly tucked away but on the ground it is obvious that this white bird is a small heron, as it stalks along the water’s edge with its sharp beak poised to strike at a fish or frog.

So where did these attractive birds come from? Like the collared dove, which reached this country less than 60 years ago and has since spread across the length and breadth of Britain, the arrival of the little egret was a natural extension of a colonisation of southern Europe.

Potentially, the species will have been aided by the lower number of cold winters but the range of the species was expanding well before we started to think about climate change. Here’s a bird that has found a niche and made full use of it, probably benefiting from the fact that it is as at home on an estuary as it is on a river.

The first confirmed breeding record for little egret was in 1996 in Poole Harbour, Dorset, with Ireland’s first the following year.

By 2006 the species was well established with more than 500 pairs confirmed breeding in 60 different colonies as far north as North Wales.

In 2009 more than 800 pairs bred and Wetland Bird Survey counts for that autumn totalled around 5,000 individuals on our estuaries and waterways, since when numbers seem to have levelled off. Local birdwatchers counting birds on the Stour Estuary, as part of the monthly Wetland Bird Survey, have found as many as 120 on the Suffolk side, which is remarkable, and there are breeding sites in the Woolverston and Southwold areas, as well as in less well-publicised spots. As it says in the Suffolk Bird Report for 2010, birds ‘can be encountered in any parish in the county’.

At the BTO we’re always ‘looking out for birds’ – as it says below our logo. Although little egrets are much more numerous than they were, we’re still interested in hearing about them and any other birds you see when out walking or birdwatching.

The easiest way to make the most value of your birdwatching records is to join our team of BirdTrackers at so that you can share your bird lists. I wonder how many will include little egret?

Find out more about the Thetford-based British Trust for Ornithology at

Next time: Graham will look at fieldfares and the BTO’s thrush survey.