Once they were dead, now they live: sky-stretching black and white flocks of them.
Extinct since the mid 19th century in Britain, as is so often the case, their return in 1947 was a great conservation accident. The flooded Suffolk marshland the first pioneering pairs returned to was only created by a combination of military defences and a bomb through a sea wall – and when the avocets arrived, they were given a patriotic welcome as if they too were returning wartime heroes. It’s all here in this splendid clip from Birds Britannia with some nice sepia-toned footage (some from Peter Scott’s ‘Look’). Jolly good, or what?!
Today, we have at least 1000 pairs, thanks in no small part to the RSPB’s success in protecting nests and creating additional suitable habitat. Coupled with their unique appearance – close up, not very much else looks quite like one – their story in Britain made them a natural choice of emblem for the RSPB. Indeed, it’s become such a powerfully recognisable symbol that it’s one of a few NGO ‘brands’ to make it into ‘The Logo Game’, a board game which aside from the RSPB and WWF is mostly an orgy of capitalist commercial advertising. Something which the RSPB is actually quite good at – crucial, I suppose, if nature is to have a voice in today’s society.
That expansion in numbers only happened one way – the avocets had to get busy doing what they do best. And having sheepishly observed the process at RSPB Blacktoft Sands in Yorkshire, I can tell you it’s one of the best comic bird performances in Britain. As the male does what comes naturally he clasps his wings together, raised straight up over his back in as camp a fashion as you could imagine. I’m sure he thinks it most elegant. The result is, with any luck, avocet chicks, which are of course very cute creatures indeed. Like all waders, there isn’t much more to a description than ‘little ball of fluff on stilts’, but in this case already sporting an upturned bill.
I was fortunate enough to get a very close look at some from a hide in Hampshire back in the spring of 2007 (I’m not sure they have been quite so successful in recent years in the county). How they came to be on the reserve originally has a great story attached: in 2002 two pairs had settled to breed about 6 km away. One pair and two chicks were subsequently found outside Titchfield Haven nature reserve on the beach, the chicks presumably having walked all the way there. It was thought a fox had taken one and disturbed the entire family which fled for safer ground, and I recall something to do with poor food availability at the original site too. Adults had been flying to Titchfield for food for some time. The remaining chicks were carried onto the reserve by wardens, in view of the adults at all times, and eventually went on to establish a small colony. I hope I’ve told that right (I only read the details recently) – it’s just one more remarkable tale in the history of this remarkable bird.
Fast forward to this year, and it took until this month to see my first avocets for 2011, referring of course to four at Pagham Harbour in Sussex. But the views were hardly spectacular.
They were just an appetiser for what I hoped would be the main event – a trip to Arne RSPB in Dorset, large numbers of avocets being one amongst many reasons to go. We had to wait for the evening’s performance. I had asked what I presumed was ‘a stupid question’ of the volunteer manning the reserve hut (nicely appointed with clear windows onto a feeding area and a log burning stove!) – which trail should we do first? He suggested leaving the path round Combe Heath that would also take in Middlebere until last, and that if we arrived at the screen for 3:00-3:30 pm the birds would perform for us then, flying up the channel to roost. Harriers would follow them through. This sounded excellent!
So it was that at 3:30 pm we found ourselves looking out over an empty expanse of mud. Ironically, a sheaf of record sheets had been left by a PhD student asking for avocet counts and observations – a brave researcher trusting her data quality to citizen science (part of Bournemouth University’s very interesting study of the ecology of wintering waders in Poole harbour), but unfortunately we had nothing to offer.
Waiting with increasing irritation, that’s when we saw a male hen harrier winging back upstream. Perhaps wondering, as we were, where his supper banquet was. Eventually we caught sight of some sizeable flocks right back on the harbour. A few birds started walking down the channel, feeding in water so deep it nearly covered their legs, then a few more flew closer in loose groups. And in the last gasp of daylight, from out of nowhere the whole flock spooked, circled several times, and then settled right in front of us on the mud. And the views were, as birders say, ‘crippling’: they fed for a while longer, heads sashaying and black back markings well displayed as they filtered the mud before finally settling down to sleep. The iconic avocet: species of (last) week.
Images: Wikimedia Commons (click for attribution)