Saturday, 22 August 2009


Over many years it has been a delight to witness the remarkable coming of the Little Egret to the Estuary. Thirty years ago the bird was never to be seen here and sixty years ago, when I was a boy they were not even listed as a British bird. My 1971 Larousse describes it as a bird ‘of the hot countries’ and my 1950 edition of Coward’s Birds of the British Isles states “One or two, possibly more, have strayed to England and Ireland.” It was certainly an excitement when, in the nineties, the first one or two came to feed here in Lympstone where the brook flows out between the mudbanks. They stalked up and down and in among the grey herons and brown curlews and other dowdy waders, conscious of their own beauty and rarity, and stabbed with their black bills at our mud. By contrast they made even the gulls seem drab. They shone angel white and bright against the dark of it like diamonds against velvet.

Now they are to be seen everywhere, up and down the Estuary and in the fields along its banks where they step behind the cattle. They are now more in evidence than the herons and I often sail past a dozen or more gathered together on the shingle beach at Exton and pass close enough to admire their handsome aigrettes, the long, slender snow white plumes that give them their name. “These,” writes Coward, “are the commercial “ospreys” worn by the bird during its courtship and after its death by a less rightful owner.” (my italics) The birds were slaughtered in their thousands for the sake of these beautiful feathers which passed, by way of the modistes to the hats of women. How and why the Little Egret’s plumes came in the late nineteenth cenury to be called ospreys is a mystery. Probably whoever coined the word had sprays in mind rather than that bone-breaking bird of prey, the osprey, who also sometimes visits the Estuary.

No other bird on the Estuary sparkles like the Little Egret and to watch one fishing in brilliant sunshine still seems to me to be an exotic adventure, a holiday on the River Nile. Sometimes too a lone egret will fly low over the boat, which the heron never do, his black legs trailing, bringing a touch of imported magic to a dull Devon day.,

Tomorrow I shall post a pretty poem entitled, Consider the Egret.

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