Guest blog by Mark Solomons, Minsmere volunteer and local resident. There's an unwritten rule among newspaper sub editors that any story about egrets must have one of two headlines. Either 'no egrets' if they become endangered or 'egrets, we've had a few' if they are booming. At the moment it's the latter. Britain is becoming home to a greater variety of what can best be described as big white birds that, a generation ago, would rarely be seen mingling with our native species. Little egrets are now commonplace, competing for food with grey herons and cormorants on waterways throughout the UK even venturing into cities and towns. Their importance can not be underestimated for they have become the trailblazers for the big, white bird revival, first nesting successfully in 1997 and now numbering up to 1,000 pairs in the UK, according to the RSPB.
Little egret by Steve Everett What looks like its big brother, the enormous great white egret was, last year, seen in so many places in Britain that the authoritative twitchers' 'bible' BirdGuides no longer has them as a rare species and only reports sightings in regions where they still remain scarce, notably the northernmost English counties and Scotland. In fact, during early March no fewer than seven great white egrets were counted at Minsmere - more than their usually commoner smaller cousins!
Great white egret by Jon Evans On top of that, the western cattle egret is now appearing more often, having first bred in 2008, and there are even 180 resident cranes including 50 breeding pairs. I'm counting them as 'big white birds' though perhaps that's not strictly accurate with their colourful additions to white plumage. Even white storks, Disney's cartoon midwives, are occasional visitors with one spotted flying over Wanstead in east London a couple of years ago, though not carrying a baby in a blanket. A pair bred successfully in the wild for the time in centuries last summer at Knepp in Sussex, hinting at the start of a re-colonisation. However, it may yet be a while before we match Spain, Portugal and Germany with these magnificent flying machines nesting on top of church steeples and telegraph poles every summer. But perhaps the most spectacular of the white flight arrivals are spoonbills, once so common that a pair were served up as part of a bird-themed 16th century banquet menu attended by Cardinal Wolsey that will probably be repeated on Masterchef sooner or later. Spoonbills died out as the fenlands were drained with the last nesting pair recorded in 1668.
Spoonbill by Jon Evans Yet nature always finds a way. Even more so when humans help out. Spoonbills began breeding in North Norfolk in 2010 and had what is seen as a breakthrough year last year, with 28 pairs producing 56 young. It would be easy to cite climate change as a reason for the arrival of so many leggy species from warmer climes who now feel Britain's weather is hospitable enough to call home. However, that only goes some way to explaining the phenomenon. The warmer winters help, particularly on the continent in countries such as The Netherlands, where populations have boomed forcing birds to fly further afield to overwinter, spreading their wings both literally and figuratively. Far more important has been the efforts of conservation organisations, such as the RSPB, and even much maligned farmers who have worked with nature groups to provide the ideal environments for these birds. Reedbeds and lakes have been carefully managed to create the right shelter for ground nesting birds. It worked for the bittern, once almost wiped out in Britain but now named as the Bird of the Decade for its revival in the past 10 years. Spoonbills, in particular, are incredibly sensitive to disturbance, so conservation groups have built more sheltered sites away from a flow of traffic, people and even other birds. After attempting to nest at RSPB Havergate Island, where nests appeared to have been raided by a predator - most likely a fox - wardens built wire fencing around the nesting islands to stop hungry mammals from swimming on to the birds' habitat. The spoonbills subsequently bred successfully for the first time on Havergate in 2020. These white waders, like bitterns and herons, need shallow water where spoonbills can sweep their long, custom made bills into the water to pick up fish, crustaceans and frogs while the heron and bittern will stab or pick up their prey using their bills like chopsticks.
Bittern with roach by Steve Everett Lockdown has encouraged a resurgence in birdwatching and not just counting the blue tits, wrens and robins on the feeders for the annual RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch weekend. People - and not just serious birders - are noticing and reporting sightings on their permitted exercise routines. It may not be long before they start seeing storks and spoonbills and, eventually, rarer colourful purple herons and little bitterns too.
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