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The Great White of the Waveney Valley

A great white egret flies across a fenland mere.

I stand with my back against the trunk of an alder at the edge of the fen. The squally wind shakes the trees this way and that way, waking them from their deep winter slumbers. I can feel the tree’s fibres arc and bow as it flexes and endures the storm’s bluster. I look up and watch the bare crowns sway and dance.

The water’s surface is furrowed like a ploughed field today, such a contrast to yesterday when the fen was calm, and the water of the scrape, like a mirror.

Since photographing swans in North Norfolk, I’ve been attempting to make my images simpler, with less cluttered compositions. The subject is secondary and I am trying to think more as a photographer first rather than wildlife watcher, although the watcher always wins out.

This is not Minsmere. The scrape at the fen is not blessed with a huge variety of bird species, but it is a place where quiet patience is, sometimes, rewarded. A kingfisher may fizz past, a pair of mute swans glide gracefully by, a goldeneye might drop in for a spot of fishing or a marsh harrier drift over, and teal are a constant peeping presence in the winter months.

Recently, the most exciting addition to this congregation has been a great white egret. It is a first for me, but a bird that is becoming increasingly common in the British Isles. It is as big as a grey heron and pure white, apart from a striking needle pointed yellow beak that it sports as part of its non-breeding plumage. It is slender with a dainty neck that it stretches and flexes with lightning speed and precision when fishing at the edge of the reeds.

It is almost always accompanied by its smaller cousin the little egret and they can often be seen together, the smaller egret mimicking the movements of the larger bird almost exactly. The size difference is considerable, which makes it all the more charming when the smaller of the two flits to perch on one of the posts at the edge of the fen, as if to say that size isn’t everything and I’m just as big and dashing as you are!

Little egret

The Waveney and Little Ouse valleys are the perfect habitat for the egret. Redgrave and Lopham Fen is the largest remaining lowland valley in England, with an extensive reedbed, grazing meadows and woodland. There are other smaller reserves that connect along the river valleys, creating a corridor of rich potential for a prospecting egret.

I ponder as to where the bird may have come from and discover that there is an expanding population just across the North Sea in Europe, the egret’s most likely origin being the Netherlands.

Little and great white egret

There are in fact two great white egrets present along the Waveney valley this winter. I didn’t believe it at first and had to be sure by making repeated visits to the fen, checking my id books carefully to double check that I hadn’t imagined a second bird. The proof came when I had one bird firmly fixed through the viewfinder of my camera only to see it look up and as it did so did I. I found myself looking at a large white bird with long legs, black feet and yellow beak. It drifted overhead on huge wings and with lazy wingbeats, flying off into the far distance along the Little Ouse valley.

When I looked back through my camera, there remained a great white egret.

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