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Species Profile: Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

The Little Egret is one of the success stories of the bird world. This member of the Ardeidae family with its pure white plumage originated in the warm and tropical regions of Asia, Africa, Australia and southern Europe and over the past decades swiftly expanded its reach into northern Europe, a development that is being linked to climate change according to some experts. This theory is supported by research that shows that the Little Egret has been present before in the northern parts of Europe including Ireland. For example the Egret appears on the menu of various medieval English banquets as a main course. It is thought that overhunting during that period reduced bird numbers considerably and the onset of the so called Little Ice Age in the late medieval period forced the remaining bird population further south. In the 19th century the bird was hunted extensively for its plumes that were used as decoration on hats and came close to extinction in some parts of Europe. In the middle of the 20th century the Little Egret was eventually put under protection and the population recovered quickly.

The Little Egret made its first return to Ireland in the form of solitary birds in 1940 and then again in 1956. It was however only in the 1980s when more birds arrived and stayed for longer periods of time. The first breeding pair was recorded in 1997 in County Cork’s Blackwater Valley. Today the Little Egret is a common sight in all coastal regions, especially along river estuaries and in lagoons, but its distribution is scarcer inland.

The Little Egret often appears in small groups. Unlike its relative the Grey Heron, the Little Egret is a social bird as long as its personal space and feeding area is not being invaded. The Little Egret feeds on fish, frogs, snails, worms and insects and uses different methods to catch its prey. The first method is the ambush method. Here the Egret stands motionless and waits for the prey to come into its striking range. The second method involves shuffling its feet in the sediment, hoping to disturb small animals that are hiding in the mud. Method number three is the most impressive. The Little Egret flaps its wings while running through shallow water in order to confuse and panic fish, making it easier to catch.

The Little Egret nests in colonies close to its feeding grounds and the nests are being built in trees and bushes. During the breeding season the bird lays 4-5 eggs which are incubated for around 20 days.

The images were made in autumn and winter at the Shannon Estuary at Querrin and Kilbaha Bay.

Carsten Krieger, December 2019


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