Great White Egrets in Northamptonshire
I remember when they were rare. A long drive to Scaling Dam Reservoir in North Yorkshire with Chris Ingram in June 1974 ended in a car crash, the journey to site completed by bus, followed by a long train journey home, sadly returning empty-handed. At the time, it was only the 11th or 12th for Britain and it was to be a few more years before I eventually caught up with one.
News of Northamptonshire’s first (and, by now, Britain’s 57th) broke late in the afternoon on Sunday, 5th July 1992. A quick dash to Stanford Reservoir and there it was, feeding quietly in the shallows of Blower’s Lodge Bay – a shimmering vision in white on a sunny summer’s evening.
Further records followed – the next briefly at Thrapston GP on 18th February 1994, before being seen at Earls Barton GP two days later, and then the first long-stayer, which was found at Billing Aquadrome on 27th November 1997. It remained in the Nene Valley until March 1998, visiting Ecton SF, and gravel pits at Billing, Earls Barton, Ditchford, Stanwick and Thrapston during its four-month stay. As well as setting the trend for the now emerging pattern of records of overwintering in the county, this individual elicited considerable interest because of its apparently wholly black legs, including tibia, and bright orangey bill – characteristics which, at the time, were believed to be strongly indicative of the Nearctic race egretta. This race is not officially on the British list.
We now know better as many of our visiting Great Whites appear to have blackish tibia in winter as standard, as well as brightly-coloured bills, while egretta is said to average 10% smaller, although determining the size of a lone individual in the field is likely to be problematic. According to the British Birds Rarities Committee differences in bare-part colours between European nominate alba and egretta do exist but they may be only average differences and efforts to establish practical identification guidelines are underway; biometrics are diagnostic, however.
The next occurrence in Northants was also interesting but for a different reason: it involved the first flock to occur locally. Three together in flight over Stortons GP on 7th October 2002 was an amazing sight for Chris Coe on his local lunchtime patch and three remains the largest number seen together anywhere in the county to date.
The graphs below provide an overview of occurrence since the species first appeared in Northants in 1992.
In both histograms only the first date of arrival is used within the statistics, i.e. two birds arriving together at Pitsford Reservoir in October and staying until February the following year constitutes one record and appears just once, in the column for October, for that one year only.
Aside from the first breeding in Somerset in 2012, the records for Northants mirror those nationally and reflect this species’ recent increase on the near continent as this species continues to expand its range westward.
It seems likely that Great White Egrets will follow in the footsteps of Little Egret – at least to some degree – and they are therefore likely to become an increasingly regular sight at our local bodies of water during the winter months.
I would like to thank Clive Bowley, Bob Bullock, Alan Coles, Simon Hales, Douglas McFarlane, Keith Stone and Simon Wantling for supplying the images used to illustrate this post.