WHEN walking alongside the river Wharfe grey herons are a familiar sight. You may have seen one standing sentry in the water - its long neck allowing it to peer down and strike at passing fish; or perhaps stealthily patrolling the shallower stretches, looking for prey in the water or on the bank. Lately a less common close relative has been ‘in town’. Little egrets are occasionally seen in this area. On perhaps a handful of occasions, I have spotted one flying down the course of the river, but in recent weeks also at the riverside near Burley, and further upstream, near Ben Rhydding. On each occasion I only saw one bird. So, of course, this might have been the same one in different locations, but you never know! Apparently, they often roost in groups – and two together and three together have been recorded, on different occasions, in the Wharfedale area in 2017.

A rocky river bank at Ben Rhydding on a November day and a little egret seemed quite at home. It preened for quite some time in fairly close proximity to a grey heron. Both birds seemed to be having a ‘siesta’ - until eventually something spooked them. The heron flew up the river, letting out the series of characteristic loud ‘squawks’ that often accompanies their transition to the air. The little egret was more discreet and silently moved to take refuge in the upper branches of a nearby tree, where it continued to reorganise its feathers (see photograph).

Although little egrets are members of the heron family, they differ from the grey heron in that their plumage is brilliant white, they are smaller, and they have a black bill. In addition to size, their yellow feet also differentiate them from the great white egret – which is rarer again in the UK. As you might expect, given similarities in physique, little egrets share many of the grey heron’s food targets and hunting strategies. However, geographically, their range has tended to be more restricted, with them not liking the colder climes of the more northerly parts of Europe. In the late 1980s and 1990s this range was extended when they became resident in parts of southern UK – and perhaps these recent sightings are evidence that their progress northward is continuing. It may be that changing weather patterns are having an effect and they are attracted by Ilkley’s new ‘balmy’ climate! Or perhaps little egrets are simply toughening up in pursuit of new feeding and breeding territory. In any event, climate change concerns aside, they are an exciting addition to the wildlife of the area.

Steve Westerman