Little Egrets were once a very rare bird in Northern Ireland – enough to spark a province-wide ‘twitch’ thirty years ago.
Since then a lot has changed – I recently counted 30 of these small white herons at my local patch of Dundrum Inner Bay.
Every year is the same, I expect more and more of them, each year surpassing the numbers of the last. It really is a far cry from the situation of just over a century ago when the elegant breeding feathers of egrets were highly prized for the hat trade and decoration.
So many egrets were being killed (millions in fact), for nothing other than vanity, that it inspired the creation of one of the largest conservation bodies in the UK in 1889 – the RSPB.
Even after decades of protection there were no sign of Little Egrets in the north of Ireland so what has caused this change?
The ‘natural’ range of this species is the Mediterranean basin, Africa and Asia – people there don’t look twice at them. It isn’t necessarily food or habitat that draws them but what is clear is that with increasingly warmer winters (and warmer weather in general) these birds don’t mind moving onto our green shores anymore.
The increase in competition caused by more birds breeding across the British Isles means they have to go somewhere and if the temperature is right what’s wrong with here? The annoying thing is that they must be breeding somewhere in Northern Ireland but nobody has had the fortune to confirm it .....yet. They have been breeding in the south of Ireland since 1997 and have bred as close as Co. Louth. It’s only a matter of time; everybody thought it was going to be this season – close but no cigar, maybe next year.
The best places to see Little Egrets are Dundrum Inner Bay, Mill Bay in Carlingford Lough, Castle Espie WWT near Comber and Larne Lough (the latter hosting the most northerly flock in the world in winter). They really are hard to miss, not many birds apart from seagulls are all white, and if you get close enough or see them fly you might notice another striking feature – they have bright lemon-yellow feet!
The bird landscape of Northern Ireland is changing – we now have Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Great Skua has bred for the first time and Red Kites have been successfully introduced in Co. Down. On the face of it this is very positive but at the same time we mustn’t take our eyes of the ball – whilst it’s great to have all these new additions, we can’t forget those birds that are currently under pressure. Do you remember the last time you saw a Barn Owl?
If you would like to report a wildlife sighting visit http://nibirds.blogspot.com/ - the latest online resource for nature lovers in Northern Ireland