How many friends do I have who have started a family quite young in life? They all tell me how you can't really be too prepared, suddenly the children come along and you have to make the best of it, left with a hope that they will grow up to thank you... eventually, for being a good Mum and Dad!
In the bird world you have the opportunity to make a few mistakes, get it wrong, because along comes a second brood of eggs, or there is always next year - what a different life indeed. We have all seen nests in really precarious places, too close to the water or hanging off a man-made structure. I saw a pied wagtail nest in an old Nature Conservancy Council fire engine that had no choice but to attend a major heath fire in Dorset - the chicks fledged fine despite the adventure!
So, our black-winged stilts gave it a first go at nesting at RSPB Cliffe Pools this year... that was very exciting, a treat to see, and we did our best to keep egg collectors away. Four chicks hatched successfully, but then what? Well, we suspect they were eaten by the neighbouring gulls - a big disappointment for us, but in the big scheme of things, not the end of the world. You see, the stilts made their nest in the middle of the black-headed gull colony. Perhaps this was this pair’s first year at this, so not the best choice really. What I have truly enjoyed in the last month is the sight of avocets in flight, spectacular black and white markings dashing through the air as birds aggressively pursue marsh harriers, crows, egrets, anything big and feathered that resembles a threat to their chicks. This attached picture was taken by local photographer Les Foster - the birds are dashing out of view, but you get the idea.
Had the stilts built their nest amongst the avocet colony at Cliffe Pools they would have enjoyed a level of collective protection that certainly would have given the chicks a better chance. Let me just celebrate for a moment the good news regarding avocets at Cliffe Pools. In 2011 one pair bred. Like the stilts, they probably struggled to fend predators off their fledglings. In 2012, direct management by the RSPB warden and Medway volunteers improved the habitat so significantly, 60 pairs of avocet bred. You can bet, with that many protective parents on the wing, a good crop of chicks made it to adulthood despite the natural predators around them. 2013 saw 57 pairs breed. Once you get a critical mass of birds in a colony their chances certainly improve, and while this sounds a little unscientific, I believe the colony size also presents a sense of confidence in the species, where new breeding pairs join and make their first efforts to procreate. Consequently, this year, a massive 126 pairs of avocet bred at Cliffe Pools, going on last year’s figures this is now the largest avocet colony in the country. 125 years ago the RSPB was founded by a group of women who wanted to save the species from UK extinction, I think they’d be pleased.
If the stilts had chosen their neighbours more carefully and built their nest in amongst these 250 relatives, well, I think things would have turned out differently. I hope the stilts come back next year and have another go, applying what lessons they may have learned in whatever mysterious way birds observe their world and make new meaning from it.
So, I'd ask that you don't feel too down about the stilts this year, perhaps we are all observing the way in which species colonise new territory. If you have any recollections of how little egrets got a toehold in the UK, I'd love to hear from you. Breeding pairs at RSPB Northward Hill now range between 60 and 150, but I bet they had equally tentative steps into our country.
Climate change is forcing birds out of south-west Europe and the RSPB is committed to providing the habitat that will give them a chance to maintain their populations through habitat management in the UK. I hope that one day in the future, black-winged stilts may be breeding as successfully as the avocets and egrets now do.
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