14 Feb 2015

14 Feb 15 - Article: The Studland Great White Egrets

Back in October, I wrote an article for the Poole RSPB group newsletter (which was published a couple of months ago). I have reproduced it on the Blog as this was one of the highlights of 2014 on the Studland/Ballard Down patch.

Since 1987, Little Egrets have been a common sight in Poole Harbour. Prior to that time, they were a rare visitor to Dorset. They are easily identified by their small size, compared to a Grey Heron, black legs with yellow feet and long thin black bill. They are now the commonest of the Heron species in Poole Harbour.
Little Egret: Middlebere (30 Sep 14)
Up to this Autumn, Little Egrets were also easily identified as they were the only white Heron in Poole Harbour. However, on 15 Aug 14, local Birder Graham Armstrong found a Great White Egret at South Haven, Studland. Unfortunately, this disappeared within an hour & despite a fair bit of searching, it wasn't relocated. Then on 7 Sept, I found a Great White Egret in front of the Harrier hide at Middlebere. This stayed around for about 3 hours, a Poole Harbour record as normally they are seen in flight or fly off soon after being found. When it did fly, it was tracked flying to Littlesea, Studland, where it was watched by observers there that afternoon. It was assumed to be Graham's bird. The following day, I managed to see it feeding from the High hide on Littlesea. The High hide can be accessed by roadside parking at the Greenlands Farm & then following the track opposite to the hide which overlooks Littlesea.
Great White Egret: First individual. Littlesea, Studland (9 Sep 14)
Over the following days, it was clear that it had a routine which involved feeding around Littlesea, as well as, occasionally appearing in Brands Bay. But it has also been seen at Middlebere and as far away as Lytchett Bay. Often on the high tide it can be seen from the High hide, as it roosts with the Little Egrets in the NE corner of Littlesea: a telescope is essential as the roost is 1/2 mile away. But it sometimes dropped into Brands Bay to feed & when it is here, the hide is the perfect place to watch it as unlike the Little Egrets, Great White Egrets are shy birds which are easily flushed.
Great White Egret: First individual. Brands Bay (16 Sep 14)
The key features to look for on a Great White Egret: the large size (they are the size of a Grey Heron); the stout yellow-orange bill; the long black legs & importantly black feet; a very long neck which has this distinctive kink giving it a question mark shape. Note, at times it will keep its neck straight & on these occasions it is actually taller than a Grey Heron. When seen next to Little Egrets they are at least 50% larger. But beware trying size comparisons alone on Egrets when one is hunched up & the other has its neck outstretched. In these circumstances, you need to look for the bill colour & shape and the neck shape.

Having just got use to there being a resident Great White Egret in the Studland area, there was an even more exciting news update: two were seen together on Littlesea on 28 Sept. The new bird quickly settled in and has been a frequent visitor to Littlesea, Brands Bay & Brownsea since that date.
Great White Egret: Second individual. Brands Bay (5 Oct 14). Note the black feet (Little Egrets have yellow feet)
So how do we know that there are two birds present around the Studland area. Firstly, by the easy answer we have seen two birds together. But, also because we can tell them apart. The second bird has gleaming white wings. But if seen well in flight, it is just possible to see that the first bird has buff edges to some of the secondary coverts in the wing. This seems to be an unusual plumage marking, but which does occur in some juvenile birds. It will disappear if these coverts are moulted later in the year, when it will be more difficult to separate the two birds.

So the obvious question is will these Great White Egrets stay & breed. At this stage, this is unlikely as both are juveniles and even if they were a male & female, it is likely that they wouldn't breed in their first Summer. More importantly, the pattern for most Great White Egrets is they frequently turning up in the UK during the early Autumn, spending the Winter here and departing back to Europe in the Spring. At the end of Sept 14, there were thought to be about 40 or 50 birds in the UK, so they remain a scarce species. But they have settled down & bred on the Somerset Levels in the last few years and therefore, there is always a chance of breeding in Poole Harbour in a few years time. But for now if you get the chance, get out to the Studland area or Brownsea and enjoy seeing this once very elusive Great White Egret while they are around.

Update, since writing this article, the second Great White Egret has moved on. However, the first individual is still around the Studland area. It mainly frequents Littlesea & the Eastern Lake, but is still a wary individual. There are more photos of the Studland Great White Egret on the Blog:
First individual 9 Sep 14, 14 Sep 14, 16 Sep 14, 11 Jan 15
Second individual 30 Sep 14, 5 Oct 14.