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I recently saw a small, white heron with a yellow beak. What could it be?

Sent in by Ann Flack, Ruislip, Middlesex

I think you were lucky enough to see a cattle egret. Cattle egrets are very similar in size and character to little egrets, especially from a distance, but if you get a good look at them, they are easy to distinguish by the colour of the beak and legs.

While the little egret has a black beak and black legs ending in yellow feet, the beak and legs of a cattle egret are all yellow. In breeding birds, the beak will darken to orange, and they will sport orange plumes on their chest, back and head.

Cattle egrets are widespread in the warmer climate zones across the world. In Europe, they breed in the Mediterranean region, primarily in Spain and Portugal, but they have expanded their range northwards in recent years.

'Since late October, we have been very lucky to experience an 'invasion' by cattle egrets'

The first cattle egret in the UK was recorded in 1962. In the past 15 years, cattle egrets have become annual visitors to our shores, although numbers have rarely reached double figures.

Since late October, we have been very lucky to experience an 'invasion' by cattle egrets. While one bird has stayed in Dumfries and Galloway for some weeks, most sightings have come from south-west England. Since the New Year, it is thought that there are some 50 birds in Cornwall alone, and quite a few have also moved on to Ireland.

Until 20 years ago, little egrets were only occasionally encountered in the UK, but since the major influx of 1989 they have been regulars, culminating in the first successful breeding in 1996. They are now firmly established in the UK with current breeding numbers possibly in excess of 200 pairs.

The cattle egret seems to be following in its cousin's footsteps, and it is widely predicted that it would be the next bird to start to breed in Britain. The large numbers we have seen this autumn and winter will surely make it that little bit more likely to happen in the coming years. Watch this space...

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