This blog was written by James Conder practical volunteer at RSPB West Sedgemoor, Greylake and Swell Wood

If you’ve visited RPSB Swell Wood’s heronry recently, you may have noticed some new residents. Now the grey herons and little egrets have largely made their nests, laid their eggs, raised their chicks and moved on with life, in their wake some close relatives have moved in and started their own breeding cycle.

Cattle egret with a frog in its beak.

John Crispin

These exciting newcomers are cattle egrets, and follow the pioneering little egrets and great white egrets in colonising UK shores. Recent years have seen the first few cattle egret colonies appear in the Somerset Levels – too my knowledge our county is the only place in the British Isles where these birds currently breed (Editors note: They have breed Cheshire, Essex, Hampshire and Northhamtonshire too). And why not choose Swell Wood to make a new home? The herons can vouch for it as a great spot; plenty of tall, sturdy oaks in which to make a nest high off the ground, plus RSPB West Sedgemoor right on your doorstep – so there’s plenty to eat!

The cattle egrets are no doubt delighted to discover an abundance of cattle on West Sedgemoor. At present we have several small herds grazing their way through out meadows, helping us prevent the grass getting too rank and maintaining the conditions that the waders that use the moor prefer. As the cows graze, they disturb the rich invertebrate life dwelling in the undergrowth, and that’s what attracts the egrets. They hang around expectantly (I’ve often seen them hitching a ride on a patient bovine back) and gobble up any juicy looking bug that is foolish enough to break cover.

I wouldn’t be surprised if cattle egrets follow the little egret in becoming somewhat ubiquitous (wherever there are cows) over the next few years. They might seem an exotic species to us at the moment, but there are probably more countries that do have cattle egret than don’t. They can be found on every continent bar Antarctica (although white feather on white snow – perhaps we just haven’t noticed?). In fact, they are one of the most successful colonisers in the bird world, and this has been a recent phenomenon closely linked to the action of humans. Wherever we have brought our cattle, the cattle egrets have not been far behind. They managed to cross the Atlantic in the 1870s, first being recorded on the French Guiana/Suriname border, and no doubt discovering there were plenty of cows to hang out with in neighbouring Brazil shortly after. They are now found throughout South America and northwards well into the United States. Meanwhile colonization of Australia began as recently as the 1940s, reaching New Zealand by the 60s.

As we can see, cattle egrets are very adaptable birds, and don’t have to rely on cows to get by. Most large herbivores can play the same role, such as water buffalo in Asia or wildebeest in Africa – they’ll even follow farm machinery like gulls if it’s likely to disturb food for them. They’ll also steal eggs and chicks from the nests of other birds such as terns. They can also be urban birds, for example, stalking the fish markets of the Seychelles in search of scraps. I spent several years living in Cairo, where the cattle egret was a scavenging bird of the rubbish dump. As a result, that beautiful plumage was invariably horribly soiled by its surroundings.

Dirty cattle egret preening its feathers  Cattle egret scavenging a rubbish dump in Cairo

's Watter AlBahry & Georgina Cole

Luckily, our cattle egrets are keeping their feathers in top condition, with many accentuating the white with the orange flush that distinguishes breeding birds. There have been moments, especially during that spell of super-hot and sticky weather a couple of weeks ago, when I’ve been jolting down a muddy, rutted dirt track in one of our 4x4s, with large mammals lumbering through the long grass beside and flocks of cattle egrets wheeling overhead that I could have sworn I was back in Africa.

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