Little Egret

Little Egrets, like herons, are very good at standing still and not doing much. Not so long ago, we considered them a rarity, but now they are a familiar sight on estuaries and wetlands despite having only arrived back here in 1966, the swinging sixties. These are birds with style.

The Little Egret is an elegant white heron with a long slender neck. It has two long feather plumes on its neck, which go wispy in the spring, a black bill, black legs and yellow feet. Like the heron, the feet stick out at the back when it is flying. The wings are broad and look bowed when flying. The Little Egret flies with long leisurely wing beats and its head is drawn back into its body like a heron's. They are generally silent except when in a breeding colony or when annoyed. They croak a deep "arrrrgh!" irritation call when disturbed or pushed from an excellent fishing spot by a rival. The bird equivalent of something unprintable.

The Little Egret feeds on fish, especially sticklebacks, tench, and small carp. They will also eat frogs and aquatic insects. They waggle their feet to stir up the water and disturb prey or else dash through the water, wings flapping for balance, to grab something. Then they will stand still again for hours. They could earn a fortune as a 'bird' statue.

They nest in tree colonies like herons, building a rather rickety nest from twigs. They lay 3-5 eggs which both parents incubate until hatching 21 days later. Both mum and dad feed the young by regurgitating (sicking up) food. The young carefully edge out onto the tree branches at 30 days, after wising up to the shaky state of their nest, and can fly about 10 days later. After nesting, many Little Egrets will migrate south to wintering areas in the Mediterranean and Central Africa, though a few stay here, now our winters are getting warmer.

The Victorians decimated the Little Egret for their white wispy feathers to put in their hats. The bird's feathers had been used in the plume trade since at least the 17th century, but in the 19th century the Victorians took it to a whole new level when it became a major craze and the number of Little Egret skins passing through dealers reached into the millions. In the first three months of 1885, 750,000 egret skins were sold in London, while in 1887 one London dealer sold 2 million egret skins. The Victorians should all be shot! Sadly if they were, you and I wouldn't exist so it is a bit of a conundrum. You can't pick your ancestors.

There are now 2,000 pairs of Little Egrets in Britain and the number is increasing as the weather gets milder. Their Latin name is 'egretta garzetta', which sounds like a magazine reading egret, but comes from the Proven├žal French 'aigrette' meaning 'egret' and 'garzetta' from the Italian name for an egret. An uninspiring name 'egret egret' for something so beautiful.

Grey Heron

Grey Herons are fairly large birds, standing a metre tall and weighing up to 2 kilograms. They have a fairly ancient lineage and first appeared in the fossil record in the Paleogene period so they know a thing or two about fishing. They are all called Frank as that is their harsh, barking call when flying.

Grey Herons, unsurprisingly, have a grey back. They have white underparts, a long thin white neck with black marks that act as camouflage (breaking up its neck outline when viewed by fish up through the water), a black wispy crest, large broad wings, an orange dagger bill (that gets redder in the breeding season), and very long legs. Their legs are so long they stick out the back when flying, while they hold their head in an S-shape so they don't look like Concord. They often stand hunched up on one leg with their head resting between their shoulders, trying to look small.

Grey Herons can usually be seen by lakes, slow flowing rivers, marshes and estuaries, but can also trick you by standing in a field. In fact, they will roost in groups in a 'standing ground' where they discuss the day's fishing. A heron by a stream is a good indication of how clean it is and the presence of fish as they eat lots of fish! Their feeding technique is to stand motionless beside the water, ready to grab a passing fish that didn't see that dagger beak coming. They will feed on amphibians and small mammals as well, but fish is their favourite.

Heron courtship involves the male calling from his chosen nesting site - up a tree! Yes, a tree. Unless you have seen a heronry, it is hard to believe something so big can nest in trees with lots of other herons. On the arrival of a female, both birds take part in a stretching ceremony, in which each bird extends its neck vertically before getting down to the serious matter of building a big nest that won't fall down. The nest is made of a platform of sticks. Both birds build it with the male getting material while the female does the construction and ordering about. They lay 3-5 eggs anytime between February to April. The young herons hatch after 25 days and the youngsters leave the nest 25-30 days later and clamber along branches for a bit more room. They can finally fly when they are 50 days old and soon move on as mum and dad have all the fishing rights in the local area.

Grey Herons have suffered in the past from water pollution and not being particularly liked by anglers or people with ponds full of posh fish which are especially yummy and easy to catch. They can also suffer in harsh winters and from hungry old bishops. Roast heron was once a specially prized dish; when George Neville became Archbishop of York in 1465, they served 400 herons to the guests. There are 13,000 pairs in Britain. Our herons are resident, but European ones migrate south in winter.

In Ancient Egypt, the deity Bennu was depicted as a heron and in Ancient Rome, the heron was a bird of divination that gave an augury (sign of a coming event) by its call, like the raven or owl. The Latin name is 'ardea cinerea' which comes from the Latin 'ardea' which means 'heron' and 'cinerea' which means 'ash-grey' (from 'cineris' for 'ashes').