Saturday, 1 April 2017

Rise of the Cattle Egret

Got out to try some serious birding for the first time in a while yesterday morning. Done so little birding so far this spring that the only migrants I had seen were Chiffchaffs and a Swallow inland at The Mounts on 30th. Went to Start Point first of all but it was windy and blown out so I soon left. I decided to head towards Chivlestone Cross on the way to East Prawle where 18 Cattle Egrets had been reported during the week. I soon found them in the field below the turbine. They had now gone up to 19, amazing. Watched them as they fed in an arable field quite wary of me though I was distant. After watching this record breaking count for Devon ( but unlikely to last as long as Bob Beamon's famous Long Jump Record ) I headed around to Beesands Ley. Mute Swan's and Canada Geese ruling the roost here, nearly 50 of each making it look like a zoo. Best of the low number of other wildfowl was a male Shoveler. A couple singing Willow Warblers were nice but the highlight was a singing Sedge Warbler by the hide, the first March record I have ever had. Next stop was Slapton. It would have been rude not to look for the whale but there was no sign. Went around Ireland Bay and of course most of the wildfowl has now left but a male Wigeon remained. Highlight of the Lepidoptera was a Brimstone in Ireland Bay Quarry. Stopped at Torcross on the way home where there were just 4 Sand Martins and a Swallow.

What about the Cattle Egrets then. As I was watching them one of those Birding coincidences dawned on me.The first British record of what was then called ' Buff-backed Heron' was obtained at South Allington in late October 1805. South Allington is really just a Country House, a Farm and a couple cottages and it is less than a kilometre from where I was watching this flock ! A man named Cornish shot the bird apparently having to have two go's at it. Perhaps he knew there would be a good reward and suffered some kind of assassin breakdown as the bird was said to be approachable so no excuse. The bird then found its way to that past giant of British ornithology, George Montagu who lived in Knowle House, Kingsbridge. He recorded it as the 'Little White Heron ' and announced the record in the Transactions of the Linnean Society. The specimen, an immature female, still resides in the Natural History Museum at Tring, Hertfordshire. It would be over 100 years before the next acceptable British Record in Norfolk in 1917 and over 180 years to the next Devon record. This was again in the local 10k patch in November 1986. The South West Water employees who worked at the Gerston Sewage Works on the Kingsbridge Estuary opposite Kingsbridge saw an Egret in a cattle field by the Works, realised it was unusual but thought it was a Litlle Egret ( itself still very rare then ). They contacted top TV birder of the day Tony Soper who only lived around the corner. He put the id right but it swiftly moved on. I just managed to catch up with it at nearby Easton Farm, only about 4 birders saw it so along with the long deceased Mr. Cornish we had a Devon blocker ! Since then of course things have really changed. I'm pretty sure there were no more 10k records until January 2007 when about 5 were around the Kingsbridge Estuary and winter 2008 saw even more with a brief flock of 8 one January morning near Easton ( these soon dispersed to other localities nearby ). It was thought these would be the harbingers of greater numbers ( like the Little Egret colonisation ) but it was a false dawn as records became more sporadic and scarcer thereafter. Perhaps this current ' invasion ' is the one that sees them ensconsed for good in our area. Good old Colonel Montagu would never believe it !


If you count them there are 18 Cattle Egrets but the top bird between the two that are flying is actually 2 Egrets.

The 1805 record is the only definite time as far as I am aware of the local 10k patch adding a bird to the British list. The first accepted record of a Long-billed Dowitcher ( known then as Brown Snipe ) in Britain however was announced by George Montagu as being obtained somewhere on the Devon coastline one October around 1801. Could it have been in the 10k patch or does the vagueness mean it was taken somewhere Montagu was not familiar with making a nearby locality unlikely ?

EDIT. Thinking about it Colonel Montagu would have added a few others to the British list from around here I would have presumed eg Cirl Bunting. So maybe I should have stressed in a vagrant context only.