This long-necked, pure white bird, somewhat smaller than a heron, is one of the most familiar marsh species throughout Portugal. It can be seen stalking for frogs and fish which it catches with its fine, pointed bill in a snake-like strike.
Little Egrets normally nest colonially in trees, often alongside other members of the heron tribe, but a few breed on offshore islets in the Algarve. The fine plumes of the adult were in great demand for the millinery trade (to adorn ladies’ hats) in the 19th Century, resulting in a catastrophic decline. ‘Fur and feather’ activists were successful in bringing the slaughter to an end. These early conservationists were the inspiration for the establishment of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in Britain, which now boasts well over a million members.
Little Egret [Egretta Garzetta]
The species was naturally confined to the Continent until the recent combination of increased population levels in France and rising temperatures encouraged it to colonise southern Britain, from where it is spreading further north with amazing rapidity. Curiously, this sudden expansion is not reflected in Iberia, although the creation of rice fields in Spain has resulted in local increases. The Portuguese breeding population is thought to number just over two thousand pairs and be stable.
Many Iberian birds seem to be resident but some winter immigration occurs and migrants pass through on their way to winter quarters in Africa. When living in the Azores, I noticed small parties arriving on Santa Maria from the north-east each year in late September and October. Ringed nestlings from the new British population have been recovered in Spain in autumn and winter, whilst Spanish-ringed birds have found their way to France, Italy and Poland.
‘Big brother’, the Great Egret, is in the process of colonising Iberia from the east. It is also pure white, the size of a Grey Heron and has a yellow bill in winter. Ones and twos can be seen on coastal marshes in the Algarve and elsewhere in Portugal.
Little Egrets are rarely found away from water although, bizarrely, I saw one in a dry clearing in the New Forest in Hampshire. The unrelated, yellow-billed egret seen in flocks at the roadside in Portugal is the Cattle Egret, which has extended its African association with ‘big game’ to our herds of bovines.