Often thought of as a newcomer, the Little Egret is actually making a triumphant return to waterways around the UK.
Little Egret perched on a tree
Close up of a Little Egret in flight
Close up portrait of a Little Egret
Little Egret foraging for prey
Family:Herons, storks and ibises
55cm to 65cm
88cm to 95cm
350g to 550g
The Little Egret is a small, all-white egret, similar in shape but half the size of a Grey Heron.
Little Egrets are elegant, snow-white wading birds with long legs and a long S-shaped neck. Their straight, dagger-like bill is black, and their eyes are yellow. These birds have black legs with characteristic yellow feet, although this feature is often hidden under the water.
Female Little Egrets are smaller than their male counterparts but otherwise similar. In the breeding season, both sexes develop long paired plumes on the nape of the neck and long feathers on the breast and shoulders.
Juveniles appear similar to non-breeding adults but have dull greenish bills and legs and lack yellow feet.
Little Egrets in the UK are most likely to be confused with another all-white species, the Great White Egret (Ardea alba). However, that species is much taller and larger, with a yellow bill and yellow upper legs.
Close up of a Little Egret
The Little Egret may appear large in flight or when standing tall with a fully extended neck, but they can look dramatically smaller when hunched at rest.
Adult Little Egrets have a body length of 55 to 65 centimetres. They are upright birds with long legs and long necks. These features allow them to walk in the water and spear their prey.
Little Egrets weigh just 350 to 550 grams, similar to a Woodpigeon.
The Little Egret has a wingspan of 88 to 95 cm.
Little Egret in flight over the reeds, Norfolk, UK
Little Egrets could not be described as musical birds, although they can be rather vocal.
Little Egrets produce a variety of harsh squawking calls to express alarm and aggression or during courtship displays. They also call when landing and while feeding, and are frequently heard as they take off after being disturbed.
Little Egret Call
Alan Dalton, XC611627. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/611627.
Little Egrets are specialised hunters with some clever tricks for catching their prey.
Little Egrets are predators that search for live prey in the water and on land. They do most of their hunting in shallow fresh and saltwater environments, usually by stalking through the water.
They frequently shuffle their yellow feet to disturb their quarry from cover and may half-run-half-fly in pursuit of prey in the shallows.
Little Egret prey items:
Baby Little Egrets are fed the regurgitated prey of their parents. They will eat from the nest floor or directly from their parent’s bill.
Little Egret hunting for fish in the water
There was a time when seeing a Little Egret in the UK was cause for celebration, but today they are much easier to spot. Read on to learn where you might find these elegant waterbirds.
Little Egrets are most at home in aquatic and coastal marine environments like estuaries, rocky shores, rivers, lakes, ponds and marshes. They will also feed in flooded terrestrial environments like farmlands.
Little Egrets are a very widespread species, occurring across much of Europe, Southern Asia, Australia, and Africa. In the UK, they are most common in Wales and the southeast coasts of England, although they are spreading inland and further north as far as Scotland.
Little Egrets spend most of their time walking on the ground or through shallow water. They also perch and roost in trees.
Close up of a Little Egret catching a frog in its natural wetland habitat
Little Egrets remain uncommon over much of the United Kingdom, although they are locally common in some areas. Their population is increasing, and their range has been expanding since they recolonised the British Isles in the 1980s.
Look for Little Egrets in any shallow water environment, particularly in the south and East of England. Norfolk is a popular place for birdwatchers to go and watch them in their natural habitat.
Little Egret populations are rising in the UK
Humans have proved to be the greatest threat to the Little Egret, although these birds are a relatively rare example of a species making a comeback in the modern era.
Little Egrets live for an average of five years, although some individuals have survived for over twenty years.
Adult Little Egrets have few predators, although birds like harriers, Sparrowhawks, gulls, and crows may take eggs and chicks.
Little Egrets in the UK are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
Little Egrets are not endangered. Their population is increasing, and they are assessed as a ‘Least Concern’ species according to the IUCN. In the UK, these birds have a green conservation status and are increasing after disappearing from the region centuries ago.
Close up of a Little Egret standing in the water
Little Egrets began breeding in the UK in 1996 after a very long absence. Continue reading to learn more about their nesting behaviours in the UK.
Little Egrets nest in colonies, frequently in the company of the larger Grey Heron. These colonies are often atop large trees, although they may also nest in reedbeds or bushes. Both adults work together to build a simple platform of twigs.
Little Egrets lay one to seven blue-green eggs, each measuring approximately 46 millimetres long and 34 millimetres wide.
It is unknown whether Little Egrets form long-lasting pair bonds, although they are monogamous during each breeding season.
The nest of a Little Egret with eggs inside
Little Egret feeding one of its young chicks
Little Egrets are generally solitary and territorial during the day. They will defend their feeding area aggressively against other egrets if need be. However, they are more gregarious at night when flocks gather to roost.
Little Egrets sleep in trees and reedbeds over water.
Little Egrets fighting over food - they have a habit of doing this, even when their food sources are abundant
Little Egrets can be sedentary, partially migratory, or fully migratory in various parts of their range. Read on to learn more about Little Egret movements in the UK.
Little Egrets were rare winter visitors to the UK until about 30 years ago. Today they are resident in the south of the UK throughout the year, and many more join the local population each winter on migration from mainland Europe.
Little Egrets are native to the United Kingdom. Until the late 1980s, these birds were considered a vagrant in the United Kingdom, despite once being a common species. They were wiped out in the 1700s due to the desire for their fashionable plume feathers.
Today, these birds are making a welcome comeback. They first bred in 1989 and have continued to grow from strength to strength since then, colonising northwards and inland as they go.
A flock of Little Egrets in flight
Little Egrets remain relatively uncommon in Scotland, although they are becoming increasingly numerous. These birds are a regular sight at places like the Montrose Basin and Solway Firth.
Great Blue Heron
Poised to strike, the Great Blue Heron stalks along American waterways in search of fish and other small animals. These widespread waterbirds are among the tallest of North America’s birds.
A large and gregarious heron that can be found across the lowlands and wetlands of South America. The Cocoi Heron is monotypic and can be fairly easy and common to see in its range.
A small member of the heron family, barely larger than a pigeon, the little bittern is an extremely rare breeding visitor to Britain, with only limited reports of the species in the UK since the first official record in 1984.
Once considered a rare vagrant to Britain, records of sightings of Purple Herons are increasing and occasional reports of breeding exist, although are difficult to substantiate.
Owners of some of the most specialised bills in the bird world, Spoonbills forage in small groups, methodically sweeping through the water in search of small aquatic creatures to snack on. Although rare, these unique birds are making a steady comeback in the United Kingdom.
Despite their large frame, these greyish-white birds are elegant and graceful, often found statuesque beside ponds.
Originating in Africa, the western Mediterranean and sub-tropical Asia, the cattle egret has expanded naturally over the last hundred years to South America in the late 1800’s and North America as recently as the early 1950’s. Australia recorded its first migrants in 1940 whilst New Zealand’s population of egrets was established as late as 1960.
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