Meeting up with a little egret

Little Egret
Little Egret

SNOW and ice at the beginning of February made this little egret feel hungry.

I was carrying out a wildfowl count at Fishbourne creek in Chichester Harbour when I came across it.

The miniature white heron, as I sometimes think of these newcomers, was standing in a ditch or rithe as Sussex folk call the drains. In Norfolk they call them grupps.

Standing near the bird was a man with a clipboard, also looking cold. “Would you mind answering a few questions?” he asked. “Not a bit,” I replied.

Had he been standing in the city centre I would have crossed to the other side of the road. “Do you come down here often?” asked he.

Tony Hancock had a reply to that in the Goon Show but I sank it deep in the mud.

As this fellow filled in his survey the little egret stood around watching us now and then, but mainly the mud and the water in the rithe.

We were no more than eight yards apart. “How long have you known this harbour?” was another question. “48 years.” Could it really be that far away: the so-called Swinging Sixties half a century ago?

Not that I joined in much with the SS. I was always too busy with the birds, well you know, the wildfowl that is to say, not to speak of the Common Bird Census which I am still doing five decades on.

If there is a psychological problem called compulsive counting disorder then I surely have it. At least it helps bring on dark, as they say in Norfolk.

As he questioned, I thought back to the time when little egrets first appeared here. By 1979 there had been 13 records in the whole of the county, all since 1952.

Before that, these birds were down in the Mediterranean supplying aigrettes, or plumes, to the fashion trade. No girl in the Roaring Twenties would have been without her feathers. Then suddenly, the egrets had never had it so good. People stopped shooting them and global warming came to their rescue too.

Today they breed in Sussex, up in the trees. 120 of them can be seen roosting in winter at Thorney Little Deep, where the alder trees grow out of the reedbeds.

When they’re not feeling the cold so much they make a reedy squawk of complaint the minute a human head appears over the seawall. But in the little bits of the old-fashioned winters still left to us they hunch their shoulders and stand around looking glum and even the likes of me with my little digital camera can take their photograph.

“Yes he’s been here most of the day,” the man with the clipboard said. “Doesn’t take much notice of me really. Kingfisher comes by as well, sits on the sluice gate next to me.”

Then our egret started to march up and down a bit, first three steps this way, and three back.

“I like his little yellow feet,” said Clipboard Charlie. “Quite dapper really. I suppose he walks about a bit to keep warm.”

“That’s what I must do,” said I.

Richard Williamson