Monday, 16 August 2010

A stately bird returns

The news that at least four pairs of Spoonbills have bred successfully in North Norfolk this summer is extremely exciting. Although not completely unexpected, with increasing numbers of birds now recorded annually and with successful breeding having taken place elsewhere in the country, it is still staggering to think that this is the largest breeding colony seen in Britain for more than 300 years. Reliable information on the former status of the species within Norfolk is rather hard to come by but it seems certain that Spoonbills once bred at Claxton, Reedham and Cantley, probably up until the mid-seventeenth Century. The loss of coastal lagoons to land reclamation may have been one reason for their disappearance from the county’s breeding avifauna.

These elegant and distinctive birds add a taste of the exotic to some of our shallow coastal pools, especially at this time of the year, when many immature birds are moving away from their breeding colonies. The characteristic spoon-shaped bill, which gives the bird its name, is held slightly open when feeding. By sweeping the bill from side to side the bird can filter out invertebrates, small fish and other prey. This method of feeding requires shallow water, of a fairly even depth, and with a bottom of mud, silt or fine sand. This is why the best places to see these birds within the county are the coastal lagoons at Cley, Titchwell and Salthouse.

The presence of our expanding population has its origins in the successful Dutch colonies, which have also been increasing over recent years. This increase, also witnessed in the Spanish population, is in contrast to the significant declines seen in other parts of Europe, notably Russia and Austria. Spoonbills are migratory in habits, retreating south to wintering grounds located across West Africa, and they tend to leave our shores during late August and September. They are also surprisingly mobile birds, moving between different feeding sites on a daily basis and with immature birds moving between breeding colonies and wide spatial scales. For example, an individual that was ringed as a chick in a Dutch colony in May 1988, was later seen in France in September of that year, then at a breeding colony in Italy in May 1991, before turning up at Hickling in August 1992.

It seems likely that the Spoonbill population in Britain has reached the point where it can now consolidate its toehold into more widespread colonisation. It will be following in the footsteps of another recent colonist, namely the Little Egret, and there is every chance that it will become an equally familiar sight around the Norfolk coast over the years ahead. It will be a truly welcome return for this stately bird.

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