Snowy egret from the Americas turns up in South Africa


© Trevor Hardaker
OFF COURSE: This snowy egret has migrated from North America.

The average birdwatcher would be forgiven for calling it a little egret.

Serious birders know better: the white bird that has been quietly wading among the shallows of the Black River along the M3, Cape Town, this week is a snowy egret, native to North and South America, and way off course to end up at the tip of Africa.

Word went out on Monday, and watchers and "twitchers" started converging on the river banks. Five of them flew down from Gauteng on Thursday on the 6am flight to see the bird and to tick it off their lists.

"Twitchers" will go to great lengths to see a rare bird. For many, the snowy egret was a "lifer" - a first-ever sighting of a bird. And it is quite special. This is only the second time a snowy egret (Egretta thula) has been seen in Africa.

Trevor Hardaker, chairperson of Birdlife South Africa's National Rarities Committee, said the only other recorded sighting of a snowy egret in Africa had been in Cape Town in 2002. "Everyone's very excited."

For most of the week, the location of the rare vagrant could be pinpointed by the watchers with cameras, binoculars and spotting scopes, out for a perfect view. "They want it on their life list."

Hardaker explained some migratory birds got caught in storms and were blown off course, so a bird moving from North America to Central America - as the snowy egrets would do in the northern winter - could end up in the UK or Europe.

"Then it probably did a second stint down in Africa. Why it kept on moving south, who knows?

"It's very similar to our little egret. Obvious differences are the yellow patches in front of the eye, yellow up the back of its legs, and it is also daintier and more compact."

On Thursday the bird was between the bird hide on the Black River and the railway bridge.