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Enjoying egrets and ibises galore in the nearby fens





Bob Jarman is impressed by the sights at RSPB Ouse Fen.

In the late 1960s my birdwatching friend, William, saw a baird’s sandpiper at Minsmere RSPB Reserve in Suffolk. This small wading bird is an extremely rare visitor from North America. I was jealous. In birdwatching terms, I was “gripped off”!

To compensate, I invented a story that I had seen a white heron, an egret, flying across the sea and landing on the north Norfolk coast but it was too far away to identify which species of egret it was. I lied!

Three weeks ago I saw one of the most remarkable sights involving egrets that I have seen in my lifetime of birdwatching.

A little egret at RSPB Fen Drayton Lakes. Picture: Paul Brackley
A little egret at RSPB Fen Drayton Lakes. Picture: Paul Brackley

Up to the late 1980s little egrets were very rare visitors to the UK. To have a record of a little egret accepted required a written description. The description was easy, a small white heron, black bill, yellow feet.

Then, in 1989, there was an influx into southern England following an expansion of the French population. In 1996 little egrets bred in Britain for the first time in Dorset. Recent figures show breeding little egrets have increased by 2,380 per cent!

A little egret, left, and great white egret at RSPB Fen Drayton Lakes. Picture: Paul Brackley
A little egret, left, and great white egret at RSPB Fen Drayton Lakes. Picture: Paul Brackley

Little egrets are now a common heron. They can be seen regularly on Coe Fen, Logan’s Meadow, along the “snakey path” between Cherry Hinton and the Coldham’s Lane Sainsbury’s, Hobson’s Brook from Long Road to Brooklands Avenue and the Botanic Garden. It’s also worth looking carefully at any egret in a field with cattle and sheep. There is a good chance it will be a second species of egret that has recently colonised, the cattle egret.

Cattle egrets are still uncommon. They are slightly smaller than little egrets with a yellow bill and pale greenish coloured legs and feet. They have been seen in fields of cattle and sheep near Grantchester and Chesterton.

Visit any marshland bird reserve in East Anglia and the chances are you will see a third species of egret - the great white egret that has also recently colonised.

A great white egret at RSPB Fen Drayton Lakes. Picture: Paul Brackley
A great white egret at RSPB Fen Drayton Lakes. Picture: Paul Brackley

Like the cattle egret, it is still an uncommon bird. It is huge, as big as our grey heron, pure white, with a “kinked’ neck and a yellow bill that turns black in the breeding season. It’s been seen flying over the city.

Ouse Fen is a new and local RSPB nature reserve which has an overnight egret roost. I visited it and it was remarkable!

A little egret, front, and great white egret at RSPB Fen Drayton Lakes. Picture: Paul Brackley
A little egret, front, and great white egret at RSPB Fen Drayton Lakes. Picture: Paul Brackley

The main entrance to the reserve is near Earith on the B1050 between Willingham and Earith. It is a joint project with Hanson Aggregates. Hanson extracts the sand and gravel and reprofiles the pits and the RSPB fills them with reed beds. It will become the largest inland reedbed in the country.

When we arrived, more than 80 cormorants and a mob of jackdaws had already taken their roosting places in the trees. Then the egrets began to arrive. Firstly, little egrets in ones and twos, then up to 10 together.

Cattle egret. Picture: Bob Jarman
Cattle egret. Picture: Bob Jarman

Then the cattle egrets arrived in ones and twos, then two groups of 10, which mixed with another group of at least 10 that were hidden from view behind an island. At the same time six great egrets arrived in elegant pairs.

Each species of egret had its own places high in the trees and, as they arrived, they soon disappeared from view.

During the egrets’ arrival, the real rarities flew in. Glossy ibises came in as single birds or in pairs. These birds are usually associated with the huge river deltas of central and eastern Europe. The glossy ibises had their own roosting place together in the top of a tree.

Glossy ibis. Picture: Jon Heath
Glossy ibis. Picture: Jon Heath

I have never seen anything like this before birdwatching in Britain! The totals were: about 30 little egrets, at least 30 cattle egrets, six great egrets and nine glossy ibises.

Last year, I saw two little egrets flying over Arbury where I used to live as a young birdwatcher up to the end of the 1960s.

Glossy ibis. Picture: Jon Heath
Glossy ibis. Picture: Jon Heath

It would have been unthinkable then to see little egrets over Cambridge.

And I never did confess my egret lie to my dear late friend William…



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