Although it picturesquely complements their own snow-white plumage, these arctic conditions are not appreciated by the little egret, one of our more striking and surprisingly-recent, coastal inhabitants.
A bird once associated with Spain, France, and countries far milder than here, they came from the mid-90s onwards, as increasingly warmer winters made breeding on our southern shores possible. What was once an occasional breeding pair sighted around Cork and Kerry is now, almost incredibly, an established population.
The little egret is not strictly coastal, but like many of us, they know life can be richer there. It’s warmer for a start, and estuaries, coastal lakes and sheltered shorelines provide more in the way of fish, insects and crustaceans which the egret seeks. Often confused with swans from a distance, the egret is a more slender creature, walking taller and certainly more elegantly than the waddling swan. It uses its long black beak to pluck fish which it brilliantly tempts to the surface by dangling one of its large yellow feet there to resemble a worm.
While they still mostly breed around the South and East coasts, the sheltered bays of Mayo have been proving to be an attractive refuge at this time of year for this elegant, and climate-sensitive, bird. Unlike their aloof cousin, the grey heron, which likes to perch alone in prominent locations on the coast, little egrets gather in flocks, and right now I’m told, quite a lot can be seen on the flats around the Deerpark at Murrisk as well as inner parts of Westport Quay.
However endless weeks of bitter easterly winds and coastal lakes frozen deep was not what they expected of an Irish winter and many perished in the last two years. Numbers aren’t clear yet, but the people at Birdwatch Ireland are currently trying to establish their current state around the island, and especially where they flee to in winter-time.
As various parts of our county are important grounds for them at this time of year, look out for little egrets at sheltered bays, estuaries and lakes and do let the people at Birdwatch Ireland know at firstname.lastname@example.org, when and where you see them.
And hope that enough can make it through yet another already older-than-average winter to have a population next year.