[T]he Morecambe Bay Partnership has named its second ‘Bird of the Month’ star species, from amongst the many waders and wildfowl calling the Bay their home when over-wintering, or staying all year round.
The ‘Bird of the Month’ for February is the Little Egret – an elegant and striking species with an amazing backstory, which actually brought about the formation of the RSPB bird protection charity back in 1889.
The Little Egret (Egretta Garzetta) can be seen at various locations around Morecambe Bay, despite the fact that this species only appeared in the UK in 1989 and only started to breed In England in 1996, in the south.
A sighting of a Little Egret is always a joyful experience. It is one of the smaller members of the heron family, measuring 55-65 cm in height, and is distinguished by its long elegant neck and attractive white plumes on its crest, back and chest. These contrast with its black legs, long, powerful black bill and a yellow patch of skin between its eyes and its bill. What children may pick up on are its bright yellow feet that make it look as if it is wearing washing-up gloves!
Its glamourous plumage was nearly its downfall. In the 19th century, its plumes were much desired as a fashion accessory, making them more valuable than gold. Once smuggled into Europe, they fetched £15 per ounce (28g) – around £1500 at 2018 prices. Every egret produced 1g of plumage, resulting in the slaughter of many egrets, just for the adornment of hats.
This led to the 1889 foundation of the Society for the Protection of Birds, the future RSPB, in Manchester, when Emily Williamson led the campaign to prevent the barbarous trade in plumes taken from egrets and birds of paradise.
Emily campaigned against the wearing of the feathers of any bird not killed for food and, in 1891, combined the SPB with the Fur, Fin and Feather Folk group, to create a London-based society. In October 1891, its first report was The Osprey or Egrets and Aigrettes Leaflet No 1 = Destruction of Ornamental Plumaged Birds.
Thanks to this campaigning, we are able to enjoy the Little Egrets presence in Morecambe Bay today. It is an all-year-round resident and can often be seen walking in shallow water, or on the Bay’s mudflats, and stabbing its prey with its bill, with its food intake being largely a diet of small fish, molluscs and crustaceans – crabs, shrimps and barnacles.
The Little Egret is very photogenic and Morecambe Bay Partnership is encouraging people to get out, spot it and share their images on social media with the hashtag #birdsofthebay including @BirdsOfTheBay in any tweets. Just don’t get too close and photograph it from a distance, to keep it safe.
They can enjoy watching and photographing this species on the mudflats and water either side of high tide, when it can be seen with the many other waders and wildfowl species that can be enjoyed and celebrated.
Anyone struggling to identify the Little Egret, or wanting to know more about it, can ask for help from the Natural Ambassadors – dedicated volunteers who can be found at sites around Morecambe Bay at weekends and other times, wearing blue fleeces and carrying binoculars and telescopes.
Morecambe Bay Partnership’s Waders and Wildfowl project manager, says: “We have amazing birds here around Morecambe Bay and we want local communities and families to learn more about them and understand how special they are.
“The Little Egret would be a great wading bird to study with a school class, because of its remarkable history and its importance within the world of bird protection here in the UK. It is also a lovely bird for children to enjoy.”
‘Bird of the Month’ is just one wader and wildfowl initiative from the Morecambe Bay Partnership in 2018. To find out about others, keep an eye on the website – www.morecambebay.org.uk – and look out for a new and informative leaflet coming soon. You can also get immediate updates on Twitter by following @BirdsoftheBay