Sunday 28 October 2018

A Great White Egret re-visited 27th October 2018

It was another autumnal day blessed by a golden morning of sunlight but with a less welcome change in the wind, overnight, to a cold blustery northerly as I returned to the genteel landscaped parkland of Blenheim to renew my acquaintance with the Great White Egrets on the Queen's Pool.

Today, there remained but one, standing far out on the exposed dried silt. A lonely looking, thin white exclamation mark of a bird on a flat and wide expanse of silt, eschewing the shelter from the wind provided by a thick bank of reeds at the far end of the rapidly draining Queen's Pool, unlike the numerous Grey Herons and handful of Little Egrets congregated in a line close to the edge of the reeds.

It was not quite in a splendid isolation of its own choosing as it had two Grey Herons for nearby company.  Stood in the sunlight, its brilliance of whiteness seeming to accentuate its exposed position of which it appeared totally unperturbed, the wind ruffling the feathers of its crown into a comic strip tuft. 

Twenty five years ago Great White Egrets were a sought after rarity, that required some effort of will and journeying to be seen in Britain, and finding one was an occasion to be marked and celebrated but since 2012 they have bred every year on the Somerset Levels and gradually become a scarce resident bird of mainly the southern half of Britain. If not now a major rarity, they are still a bird that will persuade birders to travel, especially in a comparatively species impoverished, inland county, such as Oxfordshire. Perverse though it may seem Oxfordshire has been host to one or two individuals for a number of consecutive years now and one can, with confidence, say they are usually present in the county every year, at least in winter and spring.

They are majestic in their angular appearance and pure whiteness.When they extend their neck to its full extent they appear extraordinary. Great and White are not inappropriate adjectives to apply to such a bird.

They manage to retain a commanding presence amongst any other bird life surrounding them. Looking as tall as a Grey Heron, they are in fact slightly less so but their legs are longer creating the impression of greater size although they possess less bulk and have a small narrow head no wider than their neck.  

Great White Egret
Grey Heron
I stood on a carpet of fallen gold and yellow leaves, my outline concealed under the thinning coppery leafed boughs of a beech tree, the branches sweeping down over my head to touch a channel of water before me as I looked out through the twigs and leaves to where the Great White Egret stood.

For half an hour it maintained its solitary position, occasionally moving its head or body to regard its surroundings before wandering, in gawky elegance, on long black legs, towards a huddle of teal by the edge of what remained of the receding waters of the Queen's Pool. It stopped and then flew over the ranks of teal and landed in the water beyond and commenced to fish.

It stalked through the cold grey water accompanied by attendant Black headed Gulls, ever the opportunists for a chance meal. Its sinuous neck contorted to angle its head and golden bill in the direction of fleeing fish, with occasional and, as far as I could discern, unsuccessful stabs at securing a meal.

Two Little Grebes, unaware of my concealed presence under the tree were fluffed against the cold, bills resting on breasts as they floated on the channel of water before me. Gone was the rich and dark chestnut colouring of their breeding plumage, now replaced by a dowdy tan and brown combination for the winter, the colours of concealment, matching the mirroring of the dead and decaying reeds in the water, making them almost invisible unless they moved.

One briefly sprang to life and caught a fish which it carried in its stub of a bill upstream, to consume under the dead and dying vegetation, spilling over the bank.

The sky turned to gunship grey and any warmth from the sun was extinguished as the cold wind blew the threatening clouds towards me. It was time to go, to walk briskly back down a golden corridor of trees leading out of the park and into Woodstock for a warming coffee.

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