‘Egrets? I’ve had a few.’

Little Egret (By ‘BirdMan1’ at Wikimedia Commons (Click for link))

In fact I had a Little one last Saturday, had it in my field of view that is — and very graceful it was too, stepping delicately through a small stream before bouncing into the air and away.
We were at Freeman’s Marsh to look for a Glossy Ibis which has spent a good part of the winter on this network of watercourses near Hungerford in west Berkshire. I’ll jump straight to the ending for once just to say this was, unsurprisingly, another glorious addition to my string of little dips in 2011 — but with the now customary consolation prizes. On this particular day they took the various delightful forms of our friend the Little Egret, already mentioned, the to my mind inappropriately named Grey Wagtail, flocks of Linnets in the open scrub and Siskins in the stream side willow and alder, an unusually confiding Water Rail foraging in a patch of watercress, and best of all a male Merlin.

This is the tiniest of all falcons, quite adept at disguising itself as a thrush or perhaps a small dove. Like many birders, despite a few years’ experience I often find myself looking twice at a pigeon or some such doing a rather good raptor impression, but was very pleased this time to find that the small bird fluttering in high to the right was performing the other way round. It quickly stopped flapping and started cruising fast to the left, and down, quite powerfully, like a miniature Peregrine – -betraying its true identity. As it swooped low over the field opposite we caught the blue grey back colour, revealing this to be a male bird, before losing it behind a bush. In the breeding season Merlin inhabit upland areas of the country but come down to lowland wetlands in the winter, more usually on the coast — and are an absolute treat to see.

But enough of raptors — far too easy to get excited about. What were we doing on a cold, almost damp January afternoon, in the English countryside looking for, and in one case, actually seeing, tropical sounding wetland birds? Well, as the world warms, and very few seriously dispute that it is, it seems we have already seen some bird species respond by shifting their ranges — the Little Egret was once a mega rarity in the UK, but has steadily colonized since 1989, first breeding in 1996, now numbering about 150 breeding pairs, with around 1600 wintering. As we have seen the Glossy Ibis, on the other hand, still gets bird fiends like me quite excited — I have yet to see one in the UK. However in several of the past years we have undergone several mini invasions, with good sized flocks being seen despite its normal breeding range being around the Mediterranean, and wintering areas in Spain and Africa.

Few would deny these are attractive additions to our avian fauna — but what of the losers? Predicting how ranges of European birds will shift in the event of various climate scenarios is a tricky science, which depends very much on the accuracy of the data you put in and requires large assumptions to be made. Despite this, confidence is growing in the accuracy of our projections, with the publication of ‘A Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds’ in 2008. This threw up some interesting results. The UK is forecast to gain things like Serin, Hoopoe and European Bee-Eater as established breeding birds, whilst perhaps losing most of our Snow Buntings, Ptarmigans and Dotterels.

From a purely selfish perspective as a southern England based bird watcher, I’m sure I will welcome the potential to see new species here, and perhaps even see the species richness of our local area increase. But it would be shortsighted to take such a view without worrying over what may be lost to our Scottish friends, and the impact on various populations in Britain which are of global importance. Our only endemic species, the Scottish Crossbill (and yes, I know its status is debatable!), could be at risk, as a sedentary specialist in Scots Pine. This is a tree which may suffer in rising temperatures, bad news for conservation groups currently planning to replant large swathes of Scotland’s forests.

Another thing to consider is how our own patterns of land use might shift in the event of climate change, and what the knock on effects on wildlife will be. How will the future landscape of Britain and moving suitable climates for birds combine to determine their distributions?
What is for sure is that the future is still up for grabs — the best we can hope is that conservationists can find ways to maintain and improve excellent local habitats like Freeman’s Marsh to enhance our role as an island ark for Egrets, Ibis, and other climate refugees, as well as ensuring the surrounding countryside is wildlife friendly to enable the dispersal of these species.  At the same time I hope that, wherever possible, action is taken to mitigate the effects on birds we otherwise stand to lose.

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