The presence of a family party of black-winged stilts at Cavenham has delivered a bit of Mediterranean glamour to the Brecks. These striking waders, with their black and white plumage, straight black bill and long pink legs, are a real treat for any birdwatcher. The species is a scarce but regular visitor to Britain, originating from populations breeding in southern Europe. In some years, small numbers breed to the north of the main breeding range and birds have, on occasion, attempted to breed here in Britain. A pair successfully raised two young at Holme in 1987, rearing two young thanks to the efforts of volunteer wardens and the determination of the parents, who saw off the unwelcome attentions of grey herons, carrion crows and lesser blacked-backed gulls, among others.
The family party, made up of two adults and four juveniles, could well have bred unnoticed somewhere in Britain or they could have popped over from the Netherlands, where small numbers breed. Interestingly, these were not the only black-winged stilts in the country this year. Two pairs of these fantastic birds were known to have bred here this summer. One pair set up home at the Medney RSPB reserve in West Sussex, fledging three chicks, while a second pair nested at Cliffe Pools reserve in Kent, albeit unsuccessfully. The birds from Medney have been seen at various sites on the south coast, feeding up ahead of a movement south, likely to happen during the second half of August.
For British birdwatchers, this is a species likely to continue to tantalise, appearing as a scarce visitor and very occasional breeder. There was, however, a period when a black-winged stilt set up home at Titchwell, becoming a resident attraction over a good number of years, much to the delight of those birdwatchers interested in adding the species to their ‘annual list’. Perhaps we will see an increase in the numbers visiting, a response to a changing climate and, potentially, a northwards shift in the core breeding range. It would be a welcome addition, no doubt received in a similar manner to the avocet, whose current breeding status hides a period of prolonged absence. Certainly, the black-winged stilt has all the charm of an avocet, with the addition of a splash of colour.