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Of Bee-eater (and Bittern), Egret and Avocet


I turned the page ...  “I have amazing news for you – and indeed for every bird-lover in the country,” he whispered. “As I suspected, the birds you saw and which I have been watching for fifteen minutes are bee-eater.” The year was 1957. It was my first day at Junior school and I had picked a book from the library shelves to read ...

I I have never seen a Bee-eater ... but it was this bird or at least this story about it that inspired me, enthused me, and changed my life. The year was 1957. I don't remember the title or the author of the book and have been unable to find it again but I think it must have been based on the discovery of Bee-eater nesting in Streat Sand Quarry, in 1955, and the RSPBs efforts to protect them - the first time I believe a nest protection scheme had been attempted.

I didn't appreciate the irony at the time but as we moved into town, there was a great post-war movement to get people out from towns and cities into the countryside. Traditional farming methods had yet to change so the idyll of the countryside as portrayed by Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird series of nature books on 'What to Look For ... ' and Rowland Hilder, S R Badmin, and Maurice Wilson in the 'Shell Guides to the Countryside' was very much a 'picture come to life'. There were still Corncrake and Corn Bunting in the fields and Skylark and Swift high in the blue skies of summer. Red Squirrel in the giant Redwoods prized of parks and gardens of cities.

But what of Bee-eater ...

European Bee-eater have attempted to nest on six known occasions in Britain:

In 1920, a pair made a nesting attempt in a sand bank of the River Esk at Musselburgh, Scotland. A local gardener captured the female, keeping her in a greenhouse, and she died two days later, after laying a single egg.

In 1955, three pairs of Bee-eater nested in Streat Sand Quarry near Plumpton, East Sussex. The birds were first found on 12 June, although the birds' presence only became widely known at the start of August. One nest was accidentally destroyed by machinery in July, but seven young fledged from the two remaining nests towards the end of August. An RSPB wardening operation was instigated, and in total over 1,000 people visited the site. The birds remained until 24 September.

A pair nested at Bishop Middleham Quarry, County Durham in 2002. The birds were first found on 2 June, and within a few days started to undertake courtship feeding and copulation; five chicks hatched, but one died in the nest, one died before fledging, and a third disappeared and was also believed to have died. Durham Wildlife Trust (with RSPB assistance) set up a wardening post during the period when the birds were nesting. News was released to rare bird information services, and the national news media also reported on the birds' presence. In total, some 15,000 people visited the site during their stay; the adults and both fledged young were seen to leave on 28 August, when they flew off high to the south.

A pair took up residence on farmland adjacent to the River Wye, near Hampton Bishop, Herefordshire in summer 2005; by mid-July the adults were bringing insect food to the riverbank nest-hole confirming that eggs had hatched. A wardening operation was set up by the RSPB, with public access granted, resulting in about 2,000 people seeing the birds. However, on the evening of 29 July, foxes predated the nest, and the birds soon left the site.

A pair excavated a nest hole at a coastal site in Dorset in 2006, but this attempt failed. Two pairs of bee-eaters nested on the Isle of Wight in 2014. A viewing area was set up and run by RSPB and local volunteers enabling thousands of people to enjoy watching the adults hawking near the (hidden) nest site. Success rates unknown.

Two pairs of Bee-eater nested in Low Gelt sand quarry near Brampton, Carlisle in the North Pennines, Cumbria. The birds were found on Friday 31 July 2015 and were put under the RSPB's 24-hour nest protection programme. A viewing area was set up 200m from the nest. (Source Wikipedia)

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I have yet to see a Bee-eater ...

But I have seen a Bittern. Only once mind you on the Norfolk Broads - Hickling Broad - in the late Spring or early Summer of '61 while on a boating holiday with my parents.
During the breeding season, the Bittern prefers sizeable tracts of wet reedbed - a habitat which, two decades ago, in the UK had become scarce and under-managed.

Over the last 25 years there have been several significant habitat-restoration projects, some of which are now RSPB nature reserves, especially managed for these and other wetland birds.

East Anglia, with over 80 booming male bitterns, remains the bittern's regional stronghold in the UK, particularly in traditional sites on the Suffolk Coast, and in the Norfolk Broads but also increasingly in the Fens, particularly at newly-created habitat.

My home County of Somerset is the top UK county for Bittern, with over 40 booming males. Following the restoration and extensive creation of large wetlands in the Avalon Marshes, at Ham Wall (RSPB), Shapwick Heath (Natural England) and Westhay Moor (Somerset Wildlife Trust), Bittern became re-established in Somerset in 2008.

Bittern are consolidating their presence in North Wales. Following last year’s nesting, the first in the region since 1984, there are three nests of chicks on Anglesey this summer, a sign that the large-scale restoration of reedbeds is working.

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I still haven’t seen a Bee-eater ...

But I have seen Bittern ... and over the years I have also been lucky enough to see some of the other rare birds of the Heron family: Purple Heron on the marsh at Bere Ferrers Devon in the ‘80s - a rarity then; Little Egret on the wetlands up from Totnes, Devon and most recently - a couple at the Spinnies Local Nature Reserve, and at the RSPB Conwy where they have an established small breeding colony the other side of the estuary amongst the Grey Heron.

All have moved into Britain from the south, and it is generally thought that they may have been drawn northwards by the warming climate (as well as by the care with which wetland wildlife sites are now managed in many parts of Britain).

The process began with the Little Egret, which first nested at Poole Harbour in Dorset in 1996 and has now spread so widely that there are hundreds of pairs nesting across the country. A closely related species, the Cattle Egret, nested for the first time in Britain in 2008, in Somerset. And in 2010 two more of the family arrived – the Purple Heron, which began to breed in Dungeness in Kent, and the Little Bittern, which nested, like the Cattle Egret and this year's Great White Egret, in the wetlands of Somerset, at Ham Wall Nature Reserve.

The site is also home the majority of the UK's breeding Great White Egret, another bird that has colonised the UK in the past five years.There have been five nests of Cattle Egret on site, producing 11 youngsters.

"The Avalon Marshes are a wonderful example of landscape scale conservation, where partnership working has produced one of Western Europe's largest and best wetlands," said the RSPB's Tony Whitehead. "Places such as these are vital in providing valuable space for newly colonising species as well as safeguarding populations of vulnerable birds such as Bittern."

Accompanying them in 2010, on the other side of England, were more relatives – a group of Spoonbill, which began to breed as a colony, for the first time in 300 years, at Holkham Nature Reserve on the north Norfolk coast.

And finally, the RSPB has announced that Cattle Egrets are breeding this year at its Burton Mere Wetlands reserve in Cheshire this spring. Up to six Cattle Egrets are frequenting the reserve and favouring the Marsh Covert woodland, where there is one occupied nest.

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I may not have seen a Bee-eater yet ...

But I have seen Avocet: in winter on the Exe Estuary at Topsham, and in late Summer on the Tamar at Bere Ferrers. Both estuaries along with the Dee hold small wintering populations. But Poole Harbour in Dorset, claims the largest numbers - having risen from 25 to almost 2,000 in just 30 years, and now accounting for an astonishing 40% of the UK wintering population, making it the most important British wintering site.

They are such special birds; some would say they are the most beautiful. Though the Barn Owl gives it a close run - nature in perfection!

A distinctively-patterned black and white wader with a long up-curved beak. It is the emblem of the RSPB and symbolises the bird protection movement in the UK more than any other species. Its increase in numbers represents one of the most successful conservation and protection projects, undertaken by the RSPB.

Always an uncommon bird the Avocet became extinct as a breeding bird in this country in the early 1800’s. It wasn’t until 1947, when the coastal marshes of East Anglia were flooded to defend the country against potential invasion, that they returned to our shores. Since then, numbers have continued to grow across the UK.

Avocet now breed successfully in many parts of the UK, from Kent and Sussex, Minsmere in Suffolk, Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire not forgetting inland sites in the middle of the country in Worcestershire and Staffordshire, and on the Gwent Levels, Newport Wetlands, the only place in Wales where they breed, and most recently on the newly created Steart Marshes in Somerset, part of a major coastal realignment project.

Maybe one day I will get to see a Bee-eater (and maybe another Bittern)... .

Artist Credit

I have been unable to find a suitably sized image of Bee-eater so here’s one of a Bittern instead - Bittern in nest, pencil and watercolour heightened with bodycolour on grey-blue paper, by Archibald Thorburn (1860-1935).

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January 22, 2018 4:58 pm

[…] landscapes of the Norfolk Countryside. But it maybe tells the success story of the return of the Avocet as a breeding bird to Britain after the last war and as such is a fitting image to celebrate both […]