It looks like a great white egret (Ardea alba) has made a home for itself in my local stretch of the Río Grande. This is a really strikingly beautiful bird and a bit of a rarity around these parts. My “Birds of Iberia” just lumps it with the miscellaneous “other birds” that are thrown in a loose pile between the main text and the index. It has nothing at all to say about it beyond describing it dismissively as an “accidental.” If my encounter with it was similarly described as accidental I would have to say it was a very happy accident!

The great white egret is a odd-looking bird. It is as skinny as hell (it looks like a bird trying to mimic a giraffe) and it is as white as snow. Despite their impressive stature they are very lightweight and I was surprised to find that their average weight is about a kilo which is similar to the weight of an average gypsy barbel of the same river. Like other herons, they are stealthy hunters and spear their prey with a dagger-like beak. Like other herons too, they often stand very still for a long time to allow their dinner to get within striking distance.

On the exposed shallows of the river a bird like this can be spotted from a mile. It towers above the little egret which is the only other bird it is likely to be confused with (I was fortunate to have had both birds obligingly stand close to one another to make the comparison possible).

I was pretty excited when I first saw it about ten days ago and it was obliging enough to allow me to drive reasonably close and get a good view. I got on to Harry Abbott later that evening to confirm the identity. Harry is a fishing buddy of mine and used to lead bird watching trips a few years back when he lived in Andalucía, and so I knew he would be a good one to ask. I probably caught Harry at a bad time because he was in the boozer with his chums after galloping around for a few hours on a horse. No doubt after all that fresh air and a few celebratory drinks he might have been feeling a bit light-headed but, being the pro that he is, he left his drink on the table long enough to fire off a few questions to help establish the identity of the mysterious bird.

Funnily enough a gentleman who I only know of through his initials, and who recently got in touch via the blog, also reported seeing a pair of great white egrets, among the usual avian suspects, on the Río Grande. This was within a few days of my own encounter. I hope that we might have a chance to visit the river together soon to see what other interesting things we can spot.

I returned to the river on Saturday to see if the bird was still there and to see if I could maybe manage a photograph. He (or she, for they cannot be distinguished outside of the breeding season) was indeed standing on a shingle bank close to the motorway bridge where we had our previous rendezvous. Like the little egret beside him, he decided to take to the air and both birds flew a little way upstream. It´s not easy to disappear when you are over three feet tall and you look as though you have been whitewashed, and so I was able to drive upstream within a couple of minutes to take another look at him.

Even though this species is rarely encountered here in Spain it is globally quite common and four very similar looking sub-species exist in Asia, Africa, the Americas and Southern Europe. The southern European stronghold seems to be further east in Italy and Greece and beyond.

Interestingly, the American population suffered a decline when there was a demand for their feathers for hats and in 1953 the great white egret in flight became the symbol of the National Audubon Society that was set up to help protect birds from various threats, including killing birds for their feathers!


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This was as good a photograph as I could manage.


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This lovely photograph of a great white egret shows the distinctive way the herons and bitterns fold their necks during flight. Like all egrets it is a member of the heron family. This photo was pilfered from the internet and I cannot give credit because I forget where I found it!