A great white egret glides across the still waters of Goulds Lagoon on the upper Derwent, a ballerina framed not by curtains on a stage, but by reeds.
The egret has been standing motionless in the lagoon and now moves as if in slow motion. The long, spindly legs are lost in the reflections of the reed stalks, so only the bird’s crisp, white plumage and long, snaking neck forms a mirror image in the blue waters.
Surreal, ephemeral, transient. I’m transfixed on a winter’s day. A ballet in progress, not swan lake or any of the others with swan in their titles. This one a solo performance by the most elegant, most supreme of waterbirds, whose poise and beauty can leave swans in the egret’s wake.
Standing at more than a metre, the great egret is uncommon in Tasmanian waters and so the one at Goulds Lagoon holds my attention. I should be counting gulls as part of my assignment during BirdLife Tasmania’s annual winter gull count but I welcome the chance to take a timeout. I’ve grown tired of counting gulls – silver, Pacific and kelp – along the west side of the Derwent from the Tasman to Bridgewater bridges, so I’m now counting egrets instead. I find two great whites along my route.
The great white is generally considered a winter visitor to Tasmania from the south-east mainland and winter and autumn is certainly the time when their numbers build up.
There are in fact three pure-white egrets seen in Tasmania, the little, intermediate and great. Size identifies them, the great appearing as large as the little egret – at 55 centimetres – is small. Another migratory egret – the cattle egret – is washed with beige feathers and is generally found around cattle, as its name suggests.
By coincidence, I had been reading of a special great white egret shortly before I left on the gull counting mission. This bird has the distinction of being the oldest “tagged” bird ever recovered in Australia.
The egret, discovered in south-east South Australia earlier this year, had been fitted with a metal band on its leg more than a half century previously, in December 1964, making it the oldest bird band recovery in Australia. The egret had been banded just 15 kilometres away from where it was discovered, although the distance travelled in the intervening years remains unknown.
According to the Australian Bird and Bat Banding Scheme, the previous oldest bird band recovered in Australia was from a short-tailed shearwater found at Port Fairy in Victoria, a mere youngster at 48 years between banding and its recovery. The world’s oldest banded bird is a Laysan albatross, which is at least 65 years old — and still laying eggs.
I’m looking at a great white egret at Goulds Lagoon armed with this knowledge. How old is this bird, I ask myself, and what adventures, what travels, what winds has it rode over the years?