Who has already read their RSPB members magazine, Nature’s Home, Winter/Spring issue front to back yet? We sure have, and one particular story of the heroic return of UK spoonbills is worth sharing again. After a 300-year absence, spoonbills are returning to our shores. Dominic Couzens reveals how your support of conservation work has helped them – and explains the purpose of that cutlery-shaped bill...
Back in the 16th century, spoonbills were a familiar sight in parts of the UK, having been present since at least Anglo-Saxon times. There was even a colony at Fulham, in Middlesex, just down the Thames from Wolsey’s Hampton Court Palace. The following century, however, brought widespread drainage of the bird’s habitat, including the Fens, as well as continued hunting for the pot. The population crashed – and the last recorded nesting was at Trimley in Suffolk in 1668. For more than 300 years, not a single spoonbill chick was raised in Britain.
Then, in the 1980s, something extraordinary began, the effects of which we still see today. Birds with long legs, and usually with white plumage, suddenly started to march into the UK from the near continent. They liked it here and stayed. Many species that are now regulars to UK wetlands started visiting and then breeding in the UK for the first time. Little egrets were the trailblazers, first nesting successfully in 1996, rapidly expanding and now with a population of about 1,000 pairs. More recently cattle egrets have colonised (first breeding in 2008 and expanding) and so have great white egrets (2008). There are inklings that purple herons and little bitterns may follow. And we also see species that once called the UK home and have since been extinct from our shores, are also returning. With some help, cranes are thriving once more, and introduced white storks may follow in those tall, elegant footsteps.
Flying spoonbills, Poole Harbour, Dorset – Gareth Williams
Return of the spoonies
“But what people don’t realise,” says Graham White, the RSPB’s Head of Ecology, “is that spoonbills almost beat little egrets to it. They attempted to breed in eastern England way back in 1997, and there have been sporadic attempts in several places since.” In 2010, a regular colony was firmly established at Holkham National Nature Reserve in Norfolk.
“As egrets have gained the headlines, spoonbills have also been quietly attempting to recolonise,” says Graham.
2020 might have held little cheer for humankind, but it was a breakout year for breeding spoonbills in the UK. Not only has the Holkham population thrived, with 28 pairs producing 56 young, but they have also bred successfully on two RSPB reserves. Six pairs produced three young at Fairburn Ings in North Yorkshire, and three pairs produced four young at Havergate Island in Suffolk. The Havergate birds are perhaps especially poignant, located just a few miles – if 350 years – away from the lost Trimley colony.
It seems that the march of the long-legged birds gathers pace every year. It is great news for birdwatchers and birds alike. But what is behind this Glorious Revolution, this expansion of so many species on to our islands?
“Many people immediately latch on to climate change as the explanation,” says Jo Gilbert, RSPB’s Deputy Director of Conservation Programmes. “But it is more complicated than that. Milder winters undoubtedly help large wading birds to survive here into the spring, but there are other factors at play.”
One of these is that, as far as spoonbills are concerned, the increase in the UK is directly related to the bird’s fortunes on the continent, where populations in northern Europe, especially the Netherlands, have significantly increased. Many, if not most, of our colonising birds are thought to originate from here.
“But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that much of the spoonbill’s recent success is down to conservation work,” comments Jo Gilbert. “Spoonbills have particular ecological requirements, it has taken some time to get this just right.”
Anybody who has watched spoonbills in the wild can see that they are unusual. A quick glance at the remarkably shaped bill will allow you to conclude hastily that they are unlikely to visit your bird table.
Spoonbills feed by wading in sheltered shallows. Once immersed they walk slowly forwards, sweeping the bill, which is kept slightly open, from side to side. The surfaces of the bill are highly sensitive to touch, so should a fish, crustacean, mollusc, worm, frog or toad brush against it, an instant reaction snaps the bill shut and the prey is captured and swallowed. If the potential food is especially lively, a spoonbill will also run through the water with its bill open, hoping to touch and snatch.
Spoonbill artwork depicting feeding behaviour – Mike Langman (rspb-images.com)
Both methods are entirely tactile, reducing the need to see and aim at prey. As a result, spoonbills are content to feed at night, and in the morning and evening twilight. Birdwatchers often complain that, although it’s always exciting to see a spoonbill, it spends much of the daylight hours asleep, head and neck nestled on its back, a white blob on long legs.
Spoonbills are large and chunky birds, up to 85cm tall, and need a good source of food, especially when breeding. “They need two things to thrive,” says Graham White, “a safe place to nest and a reliable food supply. The latter is what limits their numbers.”
A helping hand
Thanks to the support of its members, the RSPB has been able to give these birds some help. At Havergate Island, the RSPB has been trying to encourage nesting spoonbills for the last 15 years, going as far as manipulating the nearby habitat to accommodate the birds’ foraging needs.
“A tidal surge in 2013 engulfed the area,” says Graham White. “It just so happened that developing natural flood management by taking flood water into the island also helped with providing one of the spoonbill’s favourite foods, a type of small fish called the three-spined stickleback, into Havergate. So, in the end, everybody was happy.”
However, the spoonbills’ other key requirement is equally precious. “The birds are extremely sensitive to disturbance,” says Richard Barnard, RSPB’s Area Manager for Yorkshire and Humber. “At Fairburn Ings, they nest along with herons and cormorants on an island in a small lake, which is densely wooded with willow scrub. The bulky platform stick-nests are above head height. We often can’t see the nests at all, and that’s how the birds like it.”
The Havergate site is also secluded nesting in the lee of a sea wall, but it hasn’t always been safe. “In 2019, we had six nests, one of which hatched four healthy chicks,” says Aaron. “Unfortunately, they were all predated, probably by a mammal swimming from the mainland.” In the end, after the failed breeding season, the RSPB staff waited for neap tides (twice a month, when sun and moon are at right angles to each other, creating lower or higher tides) and built 350m of wire fencing around the birds’ breeding island.
“If a fox tries to swim across, it won’t be able to jump over the additional barrier,” says Aaron. “It was hard work, but it seems to have been the final piece of the jigsaw. After years of management work on site, building breeding platforms and even putting up models of the birds, the spoonbills have finally bred successfully.”
Last summer’s breakthrough raises hope that these successes will be replicated elsewhere. At RSPB Wallasea Island, Essex, for example, the idea that spoonbills should breed some day was incorporated into the original plan for this large, newly created coastal habitat.
“We have been visited by small numbers of spoonbills for a few years now,” says Rachel Fancy, the Site Manager. “And we have a small scrubby island ready for them to breed. Every so often we take a boat into the huge lagoon and weed the area on the island where the scrub is growing. We have even carried in freshwater for them to stop the bushes getting desiccated. Meanwhile, fish supplies are increasing, so we are playing a waiting game.”
“It’s thrilling to see so much colonisation,” says Jo Gilbert. “The creation of extensive habitats in places such as the Somerset Levels shows that conservation efforts can go a long way towards enabling wetland birds to establish in the UK.
Now we know how to encourage spoonbills, the future is looking bright for them.”
It seems, gloriously, as though the great takeover of long-legged wetland birds in the UK is still far from complete.
You can see spoonbills at a number of RSPB reserves, even in winter.
If you find yourself at one of these reserves, keep an eye out for a snoozing spoonbill or if you’re lucky, using that iconic bill in search of food. If you’d like to receive our members exclusive magazine, Nature’s Home, and enjoy seasonal stories to get your nature fix, you can become a member of the RSPB and help save nature, together.
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