Wildlife Notes

2. Little Egrets

Article text
Canon 40D
Canon 500mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
ISO 500
F6.3
1/3200th
Evaluative Metering -2/3
Tripod

My first sightings of these birds were in the early 90’s, having previously only seen them in Africa or on the TV they would instantly put me in a holiday mindset. Since then they have colonized much of the southern UK coastal areas, the first successful breeding pair being recorded in 1996 on Brownsea island, Poole Harbour. They are most commonly found around the coasts and estuary mouths, though they are starting to pop up around inland lakes and large ponds. In 2004 Norfolk recorded its first breeding pair and in 2009 they reached Yorkshire.

The spectacular breeding plumage of these birds was used in the hat trade and lead to their demise throughout much of Europe during the 1800’s. The reduction in numbers was a significant driving force in the formation of the famous UK bird society the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) in 1889. The numbers have since recovered well across most of Europe, spreading northwards from their African strongholds.

2002 UK counts estimated there were 154 breeding pairs present in May/June, the numbers rising to 3,000 individuals later in the year due to current year’s juveniles and migration influxes from mainland Europe.

Even though they have now become a ‘common’ sight around the Exe Estuary, they still capture the eye and keep you captivated. They really are the most extraordinarily beautiful and elegant birds. The brilliant whiteness of their plumage always looks stunning, they are also quite animated birds, being more active than your average Heron. They have a number of different hunting techniques including stalking, waiting/ambush and ‘ruttling’ their feet in shallow waters to disturb prey. Like the Grey Heron they mostly investigate the water margins but can also be seen in partially flooded fields and will eat almost any animal they can swallow including fish, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, small birds, insects and worms. They hunt as individuals and are quite evenly dotted around the estuary area, however in favoured feeding places you can see 10 to 20 individuals in comparatively close proximity. In these situations they are reasonably tolerant of each other but I feel there is a hierarchy. Certain birds appear to be more dominant and will land near subordinate birds and walk towards them, the subordinate invariable peacefully and lazily flies off to a nearby spot to resume feeding.

We are lucky enough to have quite a large Heronry here, the Little Egrets nest alongside the Herons often in the same tree tops only 2 to 3 metres away. They can be easily disturbed during nesting so great care is needed to keep your distance. While I was photographing the local RSPB officer approached me to investigate what I was doing (and to make sure I wouldn’t get any closer). He was extremely knowledgeable about these birds, it was his job to count them and generally keep an eye out for their welfare. He told me there were 26 nests in the colony (2008), and also pointed out the change in feet colour from the characteristic yellow to orange for only a few weeks in the height of the mating season. The Egret breeding time here is May /June, the 3 to 5 eggs are laid on the stick platform nest and incubated by both parents for 21 to 25 days, the young fledge after another 40 to 45 days. Records indicate their life expectancy to be 5 years, though one French Egret reach the grand age of 22 years.



Canon 40D
Canon 500mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
ISO 400
F6.3
1/800th
Evaluative Metering -2/3
Tripod

Most of these images were taken in May 2008 over the space of several sunny mornings. After a while I was able to understand their flight paths and also some of their habits. These observations greatly help in the photographic process. One pair took advantage of a number of dead braches as an easy way to transport nesting material from under the nearby trees to their chosen nesting place. This gave me the ideal opportunity to wait and capture what I think are my favourite Egret images so far.



Canon 40D
Canon 500mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
ISO 400
F6.3
1/1000th
Evaluative Metering -2/3
Tripod



Canon 40D
Canon 500mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
ISO 400
F6.3
1/1000th
Evaluative Metering -2/3
Tripod

Some Egrets would take ‘short cuts’ when looking for suitable nesting material and try to walk along to the ends of a branch and break of the thinner twigs.



Canon 40D
Canon 500mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
ISO 400
F6.3
1/1000th
Evaluative Metering -2/3
Tripod

I was lucky enough to see two fights both over a suitable nesting stick and managed to capture these images. Though it was a shame the tree guards were in the background and they are a bit blurred (I think I may not have been as stable as usual when taking these images), but I still love them, they are very Kung Fu.



Canon 40D
Canon 500mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
ISO 400
F6.3
1/1600th
Evaluative Metering -2/3
Tripod



Canon 40D
Canon 500mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
ISO 400
F6.3
1/1600th
Evaluative Metering -2/3
Tripod

When photographing these birds the white plumage (like any bird) can be easily ‘blown’ and so most of the time I would dial the evaluative metering from -2/3 to -1. When taking flight shots I would take advantage of their predictable flight paths were the sun was shining onto my subject, then take meter readings from the tree leaves and set my camera manually to expose from -2/3 to -1 (and with hind sight would have kept to -1) by having the f stop at 6.3 ,then adjusting the ISO to 500 maximum (lower if I could) and aiming for a minimum of 1/800th or ideally 1/1500th.



Canon 40D
Canon 500mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
ISO 500
F6.3
1/800th
Evaluative Metering -2/3
Tripod



Canon 40D
Canon 500mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
ISO 500
F6.3
1/1000th
Evaluative Metering -2/3
Tripod



Canon 40D
Canon 500mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
ISO 400
F6.3
1/5000th
Evaluative Metering -1
Tripod

Over the few mornings I tried very hard to get a good image of their spectacular plumage while courting but only managed the following very cropped images, so definitely a future task to improve here.



Canon 40D
Canon 500mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
ISO 400
F6.3
1/1000th
Evaluative Metering -2/3
Tripod



Canon 40D
Canon 500mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
ISO 400
F6.3
1/800th
Evaluative Metering -2/3
Tripod



Canon 40D
Canon 500mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
ISO 400
F6.3
1/800th
Evaluative Metering -2/3
Tripod

During late summer/early autumn the Egrets tend to roost together, and I guess they also do this at other times of the year if they're not nesting. Typically the roost is in a wood, usually a conifer one where the floor and lower foliage get absolutely covered in their droppings. Before finally setting of to roost they congregate in a number of tall trees to enjoy the last rays of the sun. From a distance the 50 to 70 birds look like large white flowers in the tops of the trees and as the sun sets turning golden then pink they look truly stunning – Another future photographic challenge.


Please note the camera exif data for a few of these images has been lost. I therefore had to remember the settings, so apologize if some are in error.