This month, the newly-hatched Avocet chicks are just one of the amazing sights you’ll disciover at Tichwell’s RSPB Nature Reserve.
Words by Bel Greenwood.
Pictures by Andy Thompson
Avocets are the ballet dancers of the bird world. With their sleek porcelain white and black feathers and their lilting bills, they’re the most elegant of wading birds. They’re also part of a remarkable conservation story and can be seen dipping for tiny aquatic crustaceans in the freshwater marshes of Titchwell’s RSPB Nature Reserve.
The reserve, just five miles down the road from Hunstanton, has become a very hospitable breeding ground for the avocets. They arrive like a harbinger of the spring from wintering grounds on the south coast as soon as temperatures start to rise. It’s not long before they’re performing their own personal tango, a courtship dance which culminates with the female leaning forward, bending her head low to the water in submission.
After mating, the male always comes round to face his mate and the birds touch bills in a kind of kiss. In late April, they can be seen scraping out the bowls of their nests with their spindly legs. Avocets are a beautiful sight at any time of year, but visit the reserve this month when the reed beds are a flood of fresh green stalks, and you’ll witness one of the loveliest of bird world experiences.
In June, fluffy, newly-hatched avocet chicks will be taking their first teetering steps on amazingly long, very blue legs across a new clay island specially constructed in the freshwater marsh at Titchwell to encourage their breeding.
There hasn’t always been such a nursery of avocet fledglings filling the air with their fluting whistle.
The first recorded sight of an avocet was in the 1600s, although this doesn’t mean that they weren’t around earlier. Avocets were quite a common sight over 100 years ago, but they became essentially extinct in the UK by the early 20th century due to land reclamation and persecution by egg collectors and those who hunted them for their plumage.
The birds returned from Europe and the Middle East when Britain flooded coastal marshes along the East Anglian coast as a defence against German invasion in World War II. A single breeding pair of avocets was recorded in Suffolk in 1941, but it wasn’t until the RSPB acquired Havergate Island on the River Ore in Suffolk in 1947 that the real conservation and encouragement of avocet breeding in this country truly began.
It was such an uplifting success story that the avocet became a symbol of the RSPB, and the bird was adopted as the logo of the organisation in 1955.
These days there are over 1,300 breeding pairs nationally. In the traffic-light system of coding endangered species, this successful figure puts the UK avocet on an amber status.
They’re a Schedule 1 listed bird – which means it’s illegal to hunt, persecute or disturb their nesting. They certainly need to be wary. The clutch of three to four eggs that each pair produce are a favourite food of predatory herring gulls or opportunistic crows.
Avocets make devoted parents.
“They’re real protectors,” says Dave Hawkins, Visitor and Publicity Officer at Titchwell. “They’ll fly fearlessly straight at predators to protect their young – so fearlessly they have been nicknamed ‘Exocet’ avocets.”
Their successful breeding at Titchwell, along with other rare and protected species, has exceeded all expectations. As part of a three-year project to protect the reserve from the effects of coastal erosion, the reserve created a clay island to encourage avocet breeding in 2010.
In its first breeding season (2011) the wardens were hoping that 15 breeding pairs would take up residence. In the end, a record 80 breeding pairs colonised the site.
There’s no better way of viewing the avocets than through the two new award-winning Parrinder Hides, which are named after Professor John Parrinder, a quantity surveyor by trade with a passion for birds and long standing member of the RSPB Council.
They’re award-winning buildings with many technological and design advances that make bird-watching a comfortable, open and airy undercover experience. It’s the end of the old days spent propping up a leaky wooden shutter in a draughty old shed.
The two Parrinder Hides, two new trails opening this autumn and the new avocet island are all part of a now completed three year project to save the reserve from coastal erosion.
This part of the coast has always been subject to storm surges and the predations of the sea and wind has sometimes resulted in breaches of the sea wall, not least in 1953 when the marsh was completely flooded.
The land has a military history that extends back to WWI when it was used as a bombing range for the Royal Flying Corps and in WW2 the beach was mined and netted with barbed wire against possible invasion.
The land behind the beach was also used as a shooting range for medium and long-range targets. It’s been suggested that the northern sea wall was weakened by the large number of shells fired at it. The military moved out in the 1960s and the RSPB has held the marsh for the last 40 years. However, it became clear that some serious work needed to be done to preserve the site and rebuild the sea defences to the North, West and East.
It has cost £1.4m – with support from EU Life+ fund, the Marine Communities fund, WREN, SITA, RSPB members and the general public. The hide was paid for by the Interreg IVB North Sea Programme.
Today the reserve is exploding with life. The chatter of birds fills the air, dragonflies dart, there are butterflies and moths and all manner of wildlife live under the cover of the rich vegetation. There are other rare species to be found in Titchwell’s freshwater wetlands too. A pair of exceptionally shy Bitterns lodges in the reedbed. There are 8-12 breeding pairs of the endangered Bearded Tits. Spectacular flying displays of the Marsh Harriers are here to be seen. These birds of prey are actually rarer than the Golden Eagle in the UK. They have man-size wing spans (1.4 metres) yet are as light as a jar and a half of jam and hover as effortlessly as kites. They can be seen sky-dancing throughout the summer, facing into the wind and soaring in a courtship ritual conducted high above the earth.
Meanwhile, while the avocet chicks get their first lessons in scooping for dinner under the water, their parents keep a weather eye out for any incoming risk to this precious, new generation of the aristocrats of the wading world.