Varied hunting methods of Little Egret
The earliest known record of a Little Egret in Ireland dates from 1940 when a lone vagrant individual was spotted near Skibbereen, Co Cork. Sixteen years passed before the second known individual turned up in 1956.
During the 1960s some 13 birds arrived but didn't stay around for long. In 1967, an individual made news when it stayed for seven months. During the 1970s a few other individuals stayed for more than six months.
During the 1980s and 1990s more birds arrived, stayed for longer and in 1997 the first birds bred in the valley of the Cork Blackwater. It is known that the birds arriving in Ireland during the 1990s followed a rapid population expansion of the species in Spain and Portugal. The species is still expanding its range northwards and is now colonising Iceland. Some commentators link the expansion to global warming.
Like a small Grey Heron in size, the Little Egret is tall, slim and elegant in shape and is pure white in colour with long black legs. It often wades in water with its feet covered but if it alarmed it will rise with a loud, hoarse screeching call and fly away revealing its sharply contrasting bright yellow feet trailing behind its short tail.
Some other species of egret turn up irregularly on our shores in small numbers. The Little Egret is distinguished from these rarer relatives by its smaller size, hence its common name: 'Little' Egret.
Fish and aquatic creatures make up an important part of its diet. It has three different methods of hunting. One is to wait patiently like the Grey Heron, standing still at the water's edge while leaning forward ready to ambush whenever a small fish wanders into striking range.
Its second method is to walk about in shallow water shuffling its bright yellow feet in the soft sediment underfoot to disturb any creatures that may be concealed within. When a disturbed creature makes a dash to escape the Little Egret's dagger-like bill snaps it up.
The third hunting technique is when the bird runs about in shallow water flashing open its wings to panic fish. All three feeding methods are effective as the population continues to thrive.
When not fishing in water the birds feed on land hunting for frogs, newts, lizards, small mammals, small birds, snails, insects, spiders and worms. When all else fails, hunger may drive them to scavenge anything they can find to stay alive.