9 Sept 2014

9 Sep 14 - Great White Egrets - Just Like London Buses

In my secondary school days, I often used to take the bus to school. I say bus, but it was actually 2 buses as I had to change half way there: even thought the total bus journey wasn't much more than a couple of miles. Whilst waiting at the half way point, there was another bus route which crossed mine. Whenever buses on that route came along, two always came along together & generally they had less passengers on them, than the bus I was waiting for. So the myth of wait ages for a bus & then they come together is one I know to be a fact. Two days ago, I found a Great White Egret at Middlebere in Poole Harbour. More than likely it was the bird, Graham Armstrong initially found on 15 Aug at South Haven, Studland. We failed to relocate that bird despite a lot of searching. But my Great White Egret was later seen flying several miles to Littlesea, the large lake at Studland: so I guess it's most likely to be the same individual. As Studland is my main patch, I was back out looking for it that evening, but no joy. The following morning, I was down there soon after dawn, but most of the roosting Little Egrets had already dispersed. But at this stage we are not sure if it is roosting with them or roosting separately. But I went back again mid afternoon and was really pleased to see it fly out of Littlesea after I had been watching for about 30 minutes. It landed briefly out of sight, then fly again about a minute later & head off to the hard-to-watch Eastern Lake. I rarely bother to visit this area as it's so difficult to cover properly. I've never found a viewpoint that allows me to see more than about half the lake. Also I usually end up spooking quite a few of the Duck in the Winter on there, as I end up having to get close to see those visible parts of the lake. So all things considered, it is rarely worth the long walk.

After a morning on Old Harry, with routine migrants, but a few more visible than recent visits, I decided to give Littlesea another shot. Arriving at the viewpoint by the High hide, I could see about a dozen Little Egrets roosting up, over a half a mile away. It's a long view, but it's the only place to see the Little Egrets roost site. A quick scan & it was London bus time: my third sighting of the Great White Egret in 3 days. Given I've only see one other in Poole Harbour and one more in 17 years of living in Dorset, I'm finally doing well with this difficult Dorset species. They rarely stick around in Poole Harbour for more than a few minutes & unlike the Little Egrets are shy & always quick to depart. First call was to Paul Morton, who runs the Birds of Poole Harbour website. Not everybody will know Paul, but many of you who don't will probably wish you did, as he is the guy who originally found the Short-toed Eagle, that went on to tour Southern England this Summer. Paul is Year Listing in Poole Harbour & been getting really frustrated he hasn't connected with a GWE this year: due to a lot of bad luck & just being tied up at the wrong moment (including the 3 hours it was at Middlebere). He left the office in Poole immediately, only to be hit with an hour plus delay on the ferry. Abandoning that, he switched for the long 45 minute route around the Harbour. He arrived just at the same time as fellow local birders, Nick & Jackie Hull. They were probably quietly cursing Paul, as literally as they were parking the car, the Great White Egret departed the roost: the Morton luck with GWEs continues.
Great White Egret: After an hour of watching it, when it didn't move more than a foot or two, It's just heard Paul was parking the car
Fortunately, it flew to part of Littlesea, to start feeding. Whilst not in sight, I at least knew where it had come down, but it was a nervous few minutes for Paul, before we got a clear view of that part of the lake & it was safely Year Ticked (for Paul) or Harbour Ticked for Nick & Jackie. Paul & I carried on to try & get some photos, as I know my mate & ex-Studland Birder, Steve Morrison, will be really keen to see lots of photos of this cracking Studland Egret on the joint patch. Steve did laugh when I dipped at Studland on the first evening, so we will just have to hope it doesn't hang around till November when Steve is due to return to Dorset.
Great White Egret: Note, the heavy bill, deep folded neck, broad long wings, black long legs & black bunched feet
Great White Egret: Blow up of the bill to inner wing, showing the buff edges to the secondary coverts and tips to the secondary median coverts
Great White Egret: A slightly better exposed photo showing the yellow-orange bill colour & the darker lores
Great White Egret: The camera wasn't set up for a flight shot on this occasion, so its over-exposed, but it does give a better idea of the bill colour
When I looked at the photos, it was yet another time I am really glad to have bought the camera. There are many times when I'm seeing a lot more on the birds & other wildlife that I'm photographing, than I generally would in the field. In this case, it's the buff outer webs to the secondary coverts and tips to the secondary median coverts. I've got through all the reference guides & handbooks I've got in the house & they basically say the same thing. Aging of GWEs is done on the bare part colouration out of the breeding season. I don't think I have seen any decent photos of GWEs, which are anything other than white enough to appear in a washing powder advert. I've checked online this evening & I am still struggling to find other photos of GWEs showing these buff feather edges. So I'm sure that these buff edgings mean we should be able to age this individual, but I just don't know what it means. Therefore, I circulated a couple of photos to a few friends for comment. I'll update this post with any responses that come back.

Paul has also put some video of the GWE on the Birds of Poole Harbour website & there are some more photos of the GWE when it was at Middlebere on my last post.