As Leighton Moss is celebrating 50 golden years of giving nature a home this year, once a week we have been looking back on different elements of the site and what makes it so special.
For the past few weeks the reserve has been home to not one, not two, but three great white egrets!
If you are not au fait with them, great white egrets are a large, stately member of the heron family. They are roughly the same size as the more familiar grey heron and have a similar stature with a long slender neck, long legs and long spear-like beak. However, whereas the grey heron is mainly grey with white and black markings, great white egrets are pure white. Apart from size, great white egrets can be distinguished from other egrets (such as the little egrets that we get a lot of here) by their legs which are dark at the bottom and yellow at the top, and their yellow bill (though the bill can become darker in the breeding season).
Great white egret by Mike Malpass
When great white egrets are in their breeding plumage, their lower neck and back have long, fine plumes called 'aigrettes' (from the French word for egrets) which are used for decoration and display. These feathers are gorgeous and soft, and it was for these that thousands of egrets of all kinds were slaughtered in the 1800s in order to make fashionable head wear. It was due to their plight that the RSPB was founded in 1889 in order to campaign against the plume trade. Read more about our fascinating history here.
Look at those feathers! Great white egret preening by Mike Malpass
Great white egrets like to nest in colonies on large, swampy, shallow lakes, ideally with some bushes and reeds. They breed across southern Europe and are a partial migrant, so over-winter in the Mediterranean and Africa. They are also found in North and South America and parts of Asia.
In recent times great white egrets have become increasingly seen in the UK. They are rare but regular. The first record here was in 2003 with one bird which was very exciting! There are records of one here in 2004 too, but then none were seen again until 2007. Since then we have had great white egret records every year. The first bumper year was 2009 when three were here right the way through to the winter. Throughout the years that they have been coming to Leighton Moss, they have been seen not only in the reedbed, but in some years, they have been down on the saltmarsh.
We're having a great year for them at the moment, with three on-site. They are being seen daily at Lilian's, Public and Lower hides, catching fish in the shallow pools. Check out this video taken by our intern Ed.
So far, the only place in Britain where great white egrets have bred is on the Avalon Marshes in Somerset (first year was 2012), however who knows what will happen here in the future, there was a time when it was unthinkable that avocets would breed this far north and now look at us!