Opportunistic egrets

In the Somerset Levels, you don’t necessarily need to go the reserves to see interesting wildlife.

About ten days’ ago I was driving to Burtle church along the road from Westhay, and saw a large number of white birds in a field; as I got closer I realised they were not gulls but egrets – about 40 in all. Then I discovered that the closest ones were cattle egrets – a species which is nationally rare but, having bred at Ham Wall this summer, not uncommon around here.

I came back later that afternoon with binoculars and found only little egrets, so I was worried I’d mis-identified them. But the following day, both little and cattle egrets were present, about 20 of each.

However, it was what they did when they found that a digger was dredging peaty soil from the rhyne (ditch) that was most intriguing…

Herons and egrets amassing around near the digger for fresh peat

While the dredger was at work, several grey herons flew in. Very sensible, you might think – except that, although they breed colonially, they hunt as solitary birds, and really don’t seem to like each other’s company most of the time. But here there were six of them, all waiting for the rich pickings from the stream bed. Meanwhile, the little egrets – a more gregarious species – got to work on the peat dredged previously. In an adjacent field were the cattle egrets.

Cattle egret with frog

The egrets were usually in fields either side of Burtle Road between Westhay and the peat works. Both fields are saturated after the recent rains – the stubble field to the south especially so. While they were probably probing for invertebrates most of the time, one cattle egret caught a frog – which seemed to be an awkward beakful judging by the length of time it took to consume it, but there was only ever going to be one winner.

The next day, driving up to Westhay from Shapwick, I noticed the cattle egrets living up to their name. They were dodging the feet of some bullocks, in order to feed on the invertebrates in the churned-up mud.

Cattle egrets near Westhay on the road from Shapwick

If you’re gloing to dodge between the hooves, you need to know what he’s thinking…

I had less luck when I wanted to show Jen the egrets: just a single little egret. Instead, a large flock of winter thrushes – redwings and fieldfares – enjoyed the feast.

The glossy ibis

As well as the cattle egrets there was a glossy ibis around as well – probably the same one that has been at Ham Wall for most of the past two years. I’ve seen the ibis several times over the last couple of years but only once had a good sighting – but this week I had a far better view from closer range.¬†

The interesting thing about this particular bird is that it is present all year round. Most glossy ibises migrate to winter in Africa, but this one, along with a handful of others elsewhere in the UK, seems well adapted to winter conditions here.

It would be easy to think that the ibis and the egrets co-existed amicably, as they stride along together, probing the ground for prey  Рbut it became clear that their company was more one of sufferance than congeniality. When an egret got too close to the ibis, it was rounded on and hissed at. With that, order was restored.

An altercation between the ibis and an egret that got too close. While the ibis hissed, the egret stretched itself to full height.

The glossy ibis with one of the little egrets

Much as it’s exciting to see these species in the UK, they are hardly rare globally. Cattle egrets are regarded as the most widespread of all bird species, and the glossy ibis is also very widespread. Nevertheless – they are an exotic enhancement to the wildlife of this area!

The fields either side of the Burtle road from Westhay (the edge of which is in the distance). The stubble field to the south of the road is on the right in this photo. Even wth the rhynes (drainage ditches) the field is saturated…well, this is the Somerset Levels!

The fudge duck at Ham Wall

Seeing a ferruginous duck at Ham Wall brought back memories from when I was about 8 on a family holiday in Scotland. It’s a distinctively-coloured duck which normally lives in south-eastern Europe, but a handful come to the UK each year.

Dad had previously been very excited to see a black-throated diver, which didn’t interest me at all. But a bit later he was also thrilled to see a Ferruginous Duck – pointing out to me the unusual colouring. For some reason that did catch my interest, and the event has stayed in my mind since then.

I’ve wanted to see another one ever since – and dipped ignominiously a few years ago (apparently a female was in full view but I hadn’t recognised it). Thus when a drake showed up a couple of days ago at Ham Wall, I had to go.

Ferruginous Duck with coot and female mallard

I arrived in the hide at about 10.30 to find an array of birders already there. It was all quiet. One guy smiled and pointed into his telescope – and there it was, in full view. He also showed me where to view with my binoculars, and I was able to watch it for about an hour. With its colour it’s not hard to see why it’s called ‘ferruginous’ – the white tail end is also very characteristic.

Ferruginous Duck

Ferruginous Duck with gadwall

On my way back towards the car I stopped off at the first viewing platform as there were plenty of birds to see. The unexpected bonus was to see the glossy ibis: it’s been at Ham Wall for a couple of years but although I’d seen it several times, I’d never had as good views as I had today. The lighting was reasonably good and the photos below capture something of their iridescence – which leads to their ‘glossy’ name.

Glossy ibis at Ham Wall

Glossy ibis at Ham Wall

Iridescent feathers

Saturday morning, 8am – I’m opening up a hide next to Druridge Bay, on the coast north of Newcastle, rather than catching up on sleep in college.

Glossy ibis and greenshank

Glossy ibis and greenshank

First shutter open: a heron flies off lazily. A wader skitters along the shore of the lake – I later learn from my bird book that it’s a greenshank. I open a few more shutters – by this stage I’m thinking that there’s a bit less bird activity here than I’d expected. Then I notice it – off to the left of the hide, a glossy ibis!

This was the bird I’d gone to see, prompted by local birder Jaybee. He’s a guy whom Tom and I had met a few weeks ago at a hide closer to Durham, where he and another gentleman had regaled us with entertaining tales of the stupidities of a certain local conservation organisation. (For example: when a bittern arrived to skulk around a nearby reedbed, they chopped the reeds to make it easier to see the bird). He’s a retired teacher who now spends his time doing wildlife photography. His website, www.northeastwildlife.co.uk, provides professional-quality images free of charge to anyone who wants to use them. But it’s not just for the wildlife that he’s doing this: it’s a way for him to keep using his legs – otherwise he’ll lose them.

Here’s a picture he took of the ibis earlier this week.

Glossy ibis, taken by Jaybee

Glossy ibis, taken by Jaybee

The bird itself is way off course. It’s meant to live no further north than the south-east of Europe, wintering in Africa, so is an exceptional rarity this far north (although a small flock spent a few days near Slimbridge a couple of years ago). It’s a charismatic bird: easy to spot with plenty of elegant antics to entertain. One of its favourite perches is a boulder just in front of the hide – hence the photo at the top with the greenshank.

It was a huge relief to be able to do this trip – I finally emerged from the fug of the cold/flu at the end of the week, and was itching to go somewhere in celebration!

"Why are your legs such a funny colour?" - redshank and greenshank stare at each other.

“Why are your legs such a funny colour?” – redshank and greenshank stare at each other.