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TAKE A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE: Do you know the differences between herons, egrets and cranes?

Not long ago, if you saw a large bird with a long neck and long legs wading through water, it would have been a grey heron.

Times have changed and our waterways are now graced by a number of these long-legged birds. But do you know the differences between herons, egrets and cranes?

Grey herons often stand like a statue on the edge of waterways and lakes, contemplating their next meal.

A crane (44392275)
A crane (44392275)

Herons are grey-backed, with long legs, a long, white neck, bright yellow bill and a black eye-stripe that continues as long, drooping feathers down the neck. They fly with their long legs stretched out and neck pulled in.

The little egret is smaller and white. They have black legs with yellow feet, a black bill and long plumes on their head and neck during the breeding season.

Once a very rare visitor from the Mediterranean, little egrets are now a common sight. They first bred in the UK on Brownsea Island, Dorset, in 1996, and has been moving northwards ever since.

Great white egret. Photo: DEREK MOORE (44392277)
Great white egret. Photo: DEREK MOORE (44392277)

As the name suggests, the great white egret is considerably larger than the similar little egret. Sightings of them have become more common over the last few decades.

They are similar in size to a grey heron, but with longer legs and a longer neck. The bill is yellow for most of the year, becoming mostly black in breeding birds.

The upper legs are yellowish, sometimes, turning reddish in breeding birds, and the lower legs and feet are black –
unlike the yellow feet of the little egret.

Standing at 110-120cm, with a wingspan of 220-245cm, the tallest of them all is the crane. They have very long legs, a ruffle of tail feathers and a distinctive white and black patterning on their heads.

A grey heron (44392279)
A grey heron (44392279)

When they fly, they trail their long legs behind like herons, but hold the neck outstretched like a goose.

Hunting along with the draining of marshlands led to the disappearance of cranes as a breeding bird about 400 years ago, until a trio of migrating birds were blown off course in 1979, ending up in Norfolk.

Careful protection, reintroduction projects and habitat restoration projects have enabled them to return, including at the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust’s Willow Tree Fen nature reserve.

A little egret. Photo: AMY LEWIS (44392281)
A little egret. Photo: AMY LEWIS (44392281)

We may have one pair in south Lincolnshire but cranes remain one of the rarest breeding birds in the UK with just 60 pairs raising 23 young in 2020.

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