Thanks to volunteer Phil for his report and photos

On Tuesday 2nd June I attended the reserve for the first time since the 10 week lockdown and duly found a pair of avocets on the North Brooks with at least 2 chicks. This was not a surprise as I’d already been told about them 3 days earlier by a friend and colleague who lives in Pulborough. That news however was a great surprise. As far as anyone knows avocets have never bred here before.

RSPB members will be familiar with these birds as the emblem of the organisation appearing on our logo, following a successful recolonization of the UK back in the 1940s. They are beautifully elegant long-legged waders with white and black plumage and a very distinctive upcurved bill. This photo shows one seen at Rye Harbour last year.

Avocet feeding at Rye Harbour 

In the last few days I have been corresponding with Matt Phelps, a well-known birder living in Pulborough who was most likely the first person to see the avocets.  Although the reserve has been closed he has been monitoring them from the public footpaths that skirt the North Brooks. He tells me that there were 4 adults present during April and observed one sitting on a nest near the end of the month. This was reported to the reserve management who have since kept an eye on the situation while doing other essential work.  

On May 22nd the adults disappeared, and it looked as if the nest may have failed, only for them to turn up again 3 days later as the proud parents of 4 chicks. Since then they have been doing a great job of looking after these chicks and as of June 12th all 4 were surviving and apparently doing well. Now more than 2 weeks old they are noticeably bigger than when I first saw them on 2nd June. For readers not familiar with avocet chicks this photo shows one at Titchfield Haven in Hampshire in June 2015. 

Avocet chicks at Titchfield Haven

For visitors on our nature trail the best place to see these birds is from the newly refurbished Hanger viewpoint, but while the adults can be picked out distantly with binoculars, its best to bring a scope to see the chicks. They appear to prefer the furthest of the 2 main pools visible towards the left-hand end where there is some shallower water and then a damp area running left towards a much smaller pool. I have managed to spot 3 chicks from there on Friday 5th and Monday 8th June.

This may be the first breeding attempt, but it is not the first time avocets have investigated the reserve at this time of year. This photo shows a pair feeding at West Mead on 10th May last year.

Avocet pair feeding at West Mead 

Maybe it is the same pair of birds that has returned this year. This was by no means the first time avocets have investigated the reserve in Spring, and I have wondered in the past if they might stay to breed.

Avocets were extinct in the UK by about 1840 and it is thought that one of the main reasons was humans using their eggs for food. However, in 1947 they started recolonising the UK from Europe at Minsmere in Suffolk where ideal coastal lagoons had been created as part of World War 2 defences. This has subsequently become one of the RSPB’s flagship reserves. The gradual spread of avocets to various parts of the UK is regarded as one of the organisation’s great conservation successes. There are now estimated to be 1500 breeding pairs and the wintering population swells to 7500 birds.

Avocets are most often seen in coastal areas with lagoons and mudflats and although it is a migratory bird with many European avocets wintering in Africa, it is not unusual to see avocets wintering in the south of the UK, and we have had occasional ones turning up at Pulborough.

The accepted wisdom is that avocets feed in saltwater or brackish water and nest nearby, hence coastal lagoons and mudflats are the most common places to find them. So why are a pair breeding at Pulborough Brooks several miles inland? I cannot be sure of the answer but the most successful species in nature are those that can adapt to changing conditions and different environments and maybe this is happening with avocets. This is not the first time that avocets have bred on an inland RSPB reserve. RSPB Middleton Lake in Staffordshire is one such example and very much further from the coast than Pulborough.

Avocets tend to be faithful to breeding sites and will often nest in flocks, so we can hope for their return in 2021 and maybe bring some others with them. The fact that another pair has been seen at the same time is a hopeful sign.