Monday, 22 December 2014

Continental Colonists Make Themselves Known

Over the last decade an increasing number of herons (and their allies) have decided to follow the example of the little egret in the nineties and call the UK their home with what appear to be the first tentative steps towards colonisation being taken by several species, perhaps in part due to our changing climate. Most have made some attempts to breed and some have been more successful than others. Spoonbills have set up a nice little colony on the Norfolk coast, whereas glossy ibis appears only to have managed an unsuccessful breeding attempt in Lincolnshire. One or two pairs of little bitterns and great white egrets have been breeding on the Somerset Levels, and purple heron and cattle egret have also bred in the south of England very recently. Indeed Dungeness seems to have found itself a little niche as the best spot in the south-east for some of the species. Purple heron has bred and multiples of both great white and cattle egrets are currently in residence there.

In the Cambridgeshire fens we have seen bitterns and common cranes doing increasingly well but the new colonists from the continent are largely yet to arrive. Little bittern is pretty much unheard of in the county but there are two species, glossy ibis and great white egret, which have become more regular in this region. Now, a great local milestone has been reached – have they started breeding? No. Have there been double figure counts which might lead to the start of a small colony? Not just yet. Have I ‘found’ any on my occasional local sojourns round the county? Yes!

For me at least these two have finally moved from being birds that might occasionally be twitched to those I’ve been able to find myself locally and so the development has become something I’ve not just read about but have begun to personally witnessIt’s sometimes difficult to tell if you’ve ‘found’ a bird yourself, particularly with these species which are often long-staying and mobile, moving between multiple sites over a large area. In these circumstances a reasonable gap of both time and distance since the last sighting is perhaps necessary to claim ownership of a sighting, along with a genuine degree of surprise and delight, that may be alien to those who simply ‘twitch’ birds and therefore know what exactly they are about to see. Such a sighting should get most observers rummaging around for a record submission form, destined now of course for the county recorder rather than the British Birds Rarities’ Committee which has stopped reviewing records of these two species due to their increasing regularity here‘My’ recent ibis and egret had both been sighted elsewhere earlier in the autumn but I myself had stumbled upon them unexpectedly within a week of each other, and both at times when I was looking for something far commoner.

The ibis materialised overhead at the RSPB’s fairly recently acquired Fen DraytonLakes in late November in silhouette as it headed west towards a fiery horizon. The local starling murmuration of 20,000 birds had been not only my intended target, butalso that of a surprising crowd of birders, none of whom appeared to notice the ibis – I told those nearest me but received blank gazes in return. The actual starling turnout was a less than impressive single individual which comprised not even a murmur as itcircled round like a lost kid who had not been told where the party was.


The egret, presumably one of the two I saw at nearby Wicken Fen in September, flew high over Burwell Fen as I scanned for short-eared owls. I tracked it for about two miles and watched it land in the distance, before resuming my owl hunt. A respectable four short-eared owls and a single barn owl put in an appearance. These were also seen by my three year-old son Ben, although he missed the GWE, not that he needed it!

Neither bird stuck around for nice photos, unfortunately, but I managed to get 'something for the record'

Burwell Fen is an area which could be a bit of a local patch if my planned house move goes ahead, so the idea of exotic herons over the house for me at least may not be so far-fetched. All have a long way to go before matching the success of the little egret here but with habitat restoration projects such as that of the Great Fen in Cambridgeshire, they stand every chance, and are helping to generate a new chapter in UK wetland bird populations.

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