Wednesday, 15 February 2012

White Ghosts in Winter

Recently we've been seeing ghosts!
Can you see what it is yet?

These have been in the form of great big white birds flying around... especially in the snow. They shouldn't be here, according to the books!

Looks magnificent in the sun...

What we are referring to are Great Egrets or Great White Egrets [Egretta alba or, more correctly #, Ardea alba alba] Grande Aigrette. These, like the Little Egret, now breeding in the UK, are an expansion success story... spreading rapidly in the last ten or so years and wintering further north each year... as I type, the Birdguides weekly report for 2nd to 9th of February is showing 27 birds reported.... of which eight were flocked together in one location in Somerset. How long before Great White Egrets are breeding in Britain?

We've tried here to give some idea of the rate of expansion... too fast for distribution maps in bird books to keep up with:


[UK ]



Summer [Europe]




Rare vagrant



[Very rare vagrant]



Present [possibly breeding]


Rare vagrant
[Winter visitor]

Very rare vagrant


Breeding species


Every year [numbers

Rare vagrant


Breeding species
[numbers increasing]

This expanding population throughout Europe means that Great White Egrets are now seen more frequently. They prefer all kinds of wetland habitats - even farmland ditches can attract them [they certainly seem to here]. They hunting for fish, frogs, small mammals, and occasionally small reptiles and insects, spearing them with their long, sharp, spear-like bill, most of the time by standing still and allowing the prey to come within  striking distance of the spear, or to slowly stalk a victim before stabbing downwards.

The Great White Egret is one of Europe's most graceful looking birds due to its impressive size and pure white plumage. It could conceivably be mistaken for the equally white Little Egret but it is the size of a Grey Heron, and has a longer, often kinked, neck.

Little Egret [note the BLACK beak and yellow feet]
Another one of my brother's photographs!

It builds a bulky stick nest [often in colonies] in trees close to large lakes, or fishponds, with extensive areas of reed beds or other extensive wetlands.

Partially migratory and dispersive. Most European birds migrate to North Africa and the middle East (especially Israel) but they are also wintering in increasing numbers around the Adriatic and even in Holland

There are four subspecies in various parts of the world, which differ but little. Differences are bare part coloration in the breeding season and size; the largest A. a. modesta from Asia and Australasia some taxonomists consider a full species, the Eastern Great Egret (Ardea modesta).:

    Ardea alba alba (Europe)
    Ardea alba egretta (Americas)
    Ardea alba melanorhynchos (Africa)
    Ardea alba modesta (India, Southeast Asia, and Oceania)

The slaughter of egrets for their plumes lead to the formation in Didsbury (near Manchester) of the Society for the Protection of Birds in 1889, it received a royal warrant 15 years later; its lady members used farmed ostrich feathers instead. [This from the BTO website!]

This is a record of an interaction between three Grey Herons and the Great Egret pictured above:

Calmly waiting by the pond opposite Bezuard.
First, one Grey Heron arrives....
...cutting in quite close.
Then two more, one even closer which disturbs the egret a bit... but watch out, one landed behind it! [on the right]
The egret settles back down... But the third Grey Heron is just open his wings to make his attack run....
Heron coming in fast.... and the egret decides to seek somewhere more peaceful to dine!
And flies off down the valley towards the Moulin de Cheverny!

And the crow and Tim watched it all.
We've blogged about these magnificent birds before but they've been either in the Brenne or just a sighting here but this fellow has been around for over a week now... forced to flowing water by the frozen ground and étangs... nice for us, but I hope it gets more food now the 'melt's come.
Missed a lovely shot today [I had the binos... not the camera]... it came down our meadow, barely twenty feet from the house!!

Sources for this info: Collins "Bird Guide" 2000 [the 1st edition], Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, British Trust for Ornithology and Birdguides  websites and Wiki.

Other good source of information on the Egret is Go Birding.

# This is yet another re-classification*... I heartily wish they wouldn't!! 
*The Great Egret—unlike the typical egrets—does not belong to the genus Egretta but together with the great herons is today placed in Ardea. In the past, however, it was sometimes placed in Egretta or separated in a monotypic genus Casmerodius. [Wiki]


Susan said...

You've answered my question of the other day about the Australian birds. Regarding reclassification - surely it's better to reclassify and be done with it than have to explain all the time that although it's called one thing it's actually another. Scientific names would be little better than vernacular if the latest taxonomy cannot be accommodated. Scientific names are a useful short hand for all sorts of information and if you cannot accurately name a species you can't talk about it sensibly and scientifically, and if you can't do that you can't manage its survival. The devil is in the detail.

Tim said...

The devil may be in the detail... but only Wiki bothered to mention the older classification... then I knew what was in the books was the same beasty as mentioned in varicose articles. A line like "formerly Egretta alba" after the new name would suffice to clear the confusion. You am a taxonimistic personage... I'm not, and nor are over 95% of the population. I can see the sense in reclassification, in fact I agree with your view entirely... it is just how it is done that bugs me.
The newest book I've got here [2002] still calls it Egretta ardea. All that is needed is to mention that as the old name for a decade, to allow all other Non-Internet sources to catch up.
It is almost as bad as most French Guides not mentioning the Latin name at all... now that really bugs me!

Tim said...

Sorry Egretta alba... see what I mean!!

Susan said...

Now we are getting down to economics. It costs a lot to change a scientific name. Collection labels have to be changed, printed text become instantly out of date. Where there is dispute or a very persistant older name (for whatever reason) texts are very good at including syns. The French guides not doing scientific names is extremely irritating, but even when they do, they will choose to list in alpha order of common name in a field guide sometimes, so all the orchids are not together, for example. My other pet irritation is guides for one order which only give vernacular names to any species outside the order the guide is focussed on eg butterfly guides that include caterpillar host plants but don't give them scientific names.

There is no established convention for how long one should mention a synonym, but there are plenty of sites you can look up syns. If you are struggling to find info about a species, that should be one of your ports of call. Just google scientific name of species taxonomic synonyms - or look it up on Fauna Europaea or the INPN.

Tim said...

You are a "taxonomologist"... I'm far more interested in how the things react with each other... having trained as a bio-geographer.
It is the same as computing... I use graphics software... I need programmers to write me the software.
Without you, or the software writers, I couldn't engage in my interests.
I just can't afford to keep up with the latest versions...