Most birders visiting Tavira eventually come across one of the puzzling “Grey Egrets” that are more or less resident here and we are regularly asked about them.
In trip reports you can find them referred to variously as Western Reef Egrets Egretta gularis, as ‘grey morph Little Egrets’ Egretta garzetta or as gularis x garzetta hybrids and there have been questions about them on various internet forums.
It is almost 10 years now since the first of these birds was seen here and in fact photographs of one of them by Ray Tipper were published in both Birding World and Dutch Birding as long ago as 2001.
Currently there seem to be at least two different birds in the area; one frequents the Santa Luzia saltpans and most days can be found there at low tide feeding in the same channel; the other is most often seen near Forte do Rato. There have been odd reports of similar birds elsewhere in Portugal but for some reason Tavira seems to be the favoured location.
It does seem fairly clear that these birds are indeed gularis x garzetta hybrids. However, Western Europe is outside the normal range of Western Reef Egret, a species that mainly occurs in tropical West Africa, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and east to India. So where have they come from?
It is reported that some Western Reef Egrets were released from captivity in Germany back in the early 1980s. They are said to have been birds imported from Pakistan and were of the eastern race, schistacea. So maybe that’s a clue.
On the other hand, in the late 1980s, Western Reef Egrets observed in the breeding season at L’Albufera de Valencia in eastern Spain were identified as being of the nominate race gularis. The first instance of breeding there by mixed pairs of this species and Little Egret was in 1988 and apparent hybrids (birds similar to those now in Tavira) have been seen there and elsewhere repeatedly since about 1993.
Clearly, some work on the DNA of these birds would be interesting.
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