Stumbling along the trail of the Great White Egret

A decade ago, Great White Egrets were a notable rarity. Now they are a regular breeder in the Somerset Levels. The story of this change is fascinating, but it’s one that requires a Europe-wide scope: it’s not just a national phenomenon. Meanwhile, I’ve found that they have presented a photographic challenge which I’ve often failed: despite being large and very visible I’ve had trouble getting decent photographs of them. Over the past fortnight a couple of showy egrets at Ham Wall have changed that.

My first encounter with a Great White Egret was about nine years ago, when I went with my mother to a nature reserve (Ashleworth Ham) a few miles from Cheltenham.They had only recently started breeding in north-west France (in the Loire valley), some distance from their stronghold in SE Europe. This particular individual had been colour-ringed as a nestling, so that its movements were able to be tracked (so it’s known that a few days later it dropped into Catcott Lows, just a couple of miles from here in Shapwick). What intrigued me at the time was the rather different hunting style of the egret compared to Grey Herons – purposeful search-and-pursue rather than sit-and-wait.

Portrait of a Great White Egret, prowling. (Ham Wall 2019)

A couple of years later I happened to spend a week at the New Wine conference near Shepton Mallet. On the day off in the middle of the week I headed off to Shapwick Heath. I had a vague hope of seeing the Great White Egrets that had just started breeding. I was lucky because while I was there I noticed a couple of birders along the track peering into the reeds, and they pointed out the chicks that had been born recently. This was the second of the two pairs that bred successfully on the reserve, which were the first to be born in the UK.

Great White Egret – prowling and alert.

Since moving to Shapwick in 2016, I’ve been amazed how common it is to see Great White Egrets around here – so much so that it’s now rare to go to Ham Wall or Shapwick Heath and not see one. It certainly helps that they are large, showy and fly around a lot; much easier to see than,say, the fairly common water rails that are cryptically-coloured and skulk around the reedbeds out of sight.

I’ve been spotted…

When Jen and I went to Austria a couple of years ago to visit Rachel Olney, we had a day trip to Lake Neusiedl – and I was almost disappointed to find that the Great White Egret was fairly common there. What I failed to realise was that this location has a notable role for the species.

Although it’s found on all five continents (admittedly in low numbers), within Europe this was as far west as it ventured – until very recently. It had been recorded there as far back as 1682, but an increase in hunting in the 19th century led to its disappearance from the area. However, changes in legislation led to protection for its breeding areas, so it was able to return, and in the 1940s there were about 100 pairs around Lake Neusiedl.

The expansion of its range since then has been quite dramatic. It first started to breed in the Netherlands in 1978, but for about 15 years this was an isolated (but successful) western outpost. Its arrival as a breeding bird in France was in 1994, where there are now probably over 200 pairs, and it was from here that the bird came which my mother and I saw. Its first breeding in the UK on Shapwick Heath in 2012, which I saw by chance, is one of a number of remarkable breeding successes for the bird reserves of the Somerset Levels over the last few years, but in the same year first breeding also occurred in Belgium, Germany and Sweden.

The exact cause of this expansion of its range is unclear – whether it is global warming, or reduced hunting pressure, or whether it just happens to have broken through to a new range of suitable territories – or maybe a combination of these reasons. [ref] It does however appear to be very recent. By contrast, another bird which has recently started breeding in the UK – the spoonbill – was well known and often shot in Tudor England, so it appears that they are reclaiming territory from which they had previously been hunted out.

Ham Wall 2019: Herons and egrets usually don’t like each other that much, so it was a surprise when the heron imposed itself that the egret didn’t depart. They also provide a nice size comparison!

Nevertheless, by last summer I felt that these egrets were my bogey birds, photographically. Yes it was easy to see them – but they were usually too far away to be able to photograph well. Also their whiteness posed a problem: I would invariably over-expose. It took me a long time to realise by how much I had to under-expose in order to be able get a decent photo of these or the other egrets around. (I now routinely under-expose by two whole stops.) However, I did have a couple of encounters at the Decoy Hide that led to some decent photos.

The last couple of weeks have changed that with a couple of showy egrets at Ham Wall – one on the way to the Tor View Hide, one from the Avalon Hide.

Great white egret preening – or answering the phone?

In the previous week, an egret landed on the bank of the canal (South Drain) running through the reserve, and I was lining up a photo when it flew off. For once I was able to track it – and the results were much better than I had expected.

Great white egret in flight over Ham Wall

Great white egret in flight over Ham Wall

Great white egret in flight over Ham Wall

One of the curiosities of my observations of the Great White Egret is that I’ve only rarely set out to look for the species – one of these being the first one, the Ashleworth Ham trip in 2010. Since then I’ve almost stumbled across it as I observed the other birds of the area – perhaps taking it for granted, as it’s quite easy to see. But, as I have discovered, the story associated with the species is fascinating and shouldn’t be overlooked.

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

The Little Grebe: Britain’s most under-rated bird (part 2)

On a cold, grey, windy day on the east side of Lindisfarne, about seven years ago, I sat in a bird hide watching a lone little grebe on a small lake. Frankly, I’d expected a bit more… I was on a trip to the island with the vicar factory, and during the free afternoon I decided to head to the bird hide that I had spotted on the map. As Lindisfarne is well known for its birding, my expectations were higher than just the one bird.

That was the day that I discovered that little grebes are very watchable. They are busy birds, and for the half hour I was there this little grebe was constantly diving for food. I found myself enthralled to watch it.

A few years later I wrote a blog article called “Britain’s most under-rated bird (part 1)“, featuring a couple of decent photos of a little grebe in winter plumage: and I intended to make my case a few weeks later once I had acquired some photos of their breeding plumage… but I’ve only just succeeded. I could try to make this sound like a long and arduous trail with lots of twists and turns of fate – but that would be untrue! The little grebe is a common waterbird – just rather little, so photographing it well necessitated it’s being fairly close in good lighting.

LittleGrebe_5540cr1lg

Little grebe at Ham Wall

Little grebe at Ham Wall: look at the water before and after!

The Tor Hide at Ham Wall provides some good photographic opportunities for grebes. They swim around in front of the hide with the appearance of serenity… but the photo here, showing the calm water in front and the churned-up water behind, shows just how hard the bird is working to move around!

The little grebe is also known as the dabchick, a name that strikes me as a bit patronising on account of its diminutive size – but it’s still a grebe and thus quite specialised, particularly for diving fast after small aquatic prey. Perhaps if it was called the ‘chestnut-throated grebe’ it would be given more respect…

It also has a rather striking call – a loud whinnying call which is instantly recognisable when you know what it is. It featured on Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day in July 2016, and is also listed in their list of top ten strangest bird sounds.

The other day I visited the Catcott Lows nature reserve with Jen and her mum, going to the new Tower Hide. Although it’s a lovely location the lake was bit lacking in bird life – but there was an active little grebe on the lake. Some years after that day on Lindisfarne, I still find little grebes very watchable – capable of redeeming a dull day anywhere!

As luck would have it, only a few days after posting this blog, I found myself visiting the National Trust’s Wallington estate in Nortthumberland. On one of the large ponds there was a very obliging little grebe that was nowhere near as shy and retiring as the species is meant to be. Hence I ended up with my best photo yet of a little grebe in breeding plumage!

An obliging Little Grebe at the NT Wallington estate.

The starlings and the reedbed

One thing which had intrigued me about the starlings roosting in the reeds at Ham Wall was how they did so: did they perch, one starling per reed, in an orderly manner? And if so, did they perch sideways, and was it at the top or the bottom? A couple of weeks ago I found out. slightly unexpectedly.

I was watching one evening from one of the hides, thinking it would provide a better photographic backdrop, but I wasn’t particularly close. Then something spooked them, and they ended up settling just opposite the hide. I discovered that the reeds became thick with starlings, and bent under the sheer weight of them – far more chaotically than I had ever realised!

A section of reedbed, before and after the starlings arrived, taken from the same spot. (Confusingly, the lower photo, despite being lighter, was actually quite a bit later than the first photo).

A section of reedbed, before and after the starlings arrived, taken from the same spot. (Confusingly, the lower photo, despite being lighter, was actually quite a bit later than the first photo).

It had been quite a spectacular roosting already. An early shot that evening appeared to epitomise the area: starling flocks crossing one way while a Great White Egret flew in the other – and Glastonbury Tor in the background. Later it was amazing to see just how many starlings flew in to roost – a couple of times it looked like there were rivers of starlings flying over.

Starlings going to roost while a Great White Egret flies serenely across.

Starlings going to roost while a Great White Egret flies serenely across: Glastonbury Tor in the background.

A river of starlings flows over

A river of starlings flows over

Keep clear of that beak…

On the bank holiday Monday, while Jen was preparing for a debate, I went down to the Avalon Marshes in Somerset for a birding trip. Despite the disappearance of a rare bird I’d hoped to see, it was a great trip, because of the richness and diversity of the wildlife there.

Ham Wall

The Ham Wall nature reserve – with Glastonbury Tor in the background.

Ham Wall and the neighbouring reserves are well known for hobbies: small, agile falcons that specialise in catching large insects. Even so, spring is particularly good for them here as it is a staging post on their migration: many of them congregate over the marshes to fatten up before dispersing to other parts of the country. At one point there were a couple of dozen in the air at the same time. It was a spectacular sight!

Neither my photography skills nor my camera were up to photographing the fast-flying hobbies, but the lighting was excellent for an obliging great-crested grebe.

Great crested grebe at Ham Wall

Great crested grebe at Ham Wall

In the afternoon I went across the road to Shapwick Heath – the next reserve along – and spent some time at the hide above Noah’s Lake. It’s a location where odd things seem to happen: I once saw a bat descend from the hide around midday, do a couple of circuits skimming the water immediately in front of the hide, and then return to the roof from which it had come.

Little egret preening

Little egret preening

This time the entertainment surrounded a little egret and a grey heron, which had the same ideas about which three perches were the best hunting spots. The egret would pick first, but then would be ejected a little later by the much larger heron.

The hide was almost directly above one of these perches, which afforded remarkable views of both birds. Although heron normally fly off when spotted by humans, this one was unfazed by those in the hide… and besides, the lake was chock full of fish so there was plenty of reason not to be too fussy about spectators…

Not sure I'd want to get too close to that beak...

Not sure I’d want to get too close to that beak… grey heron at Shapwick Heath

There was plenty of roach in the lake, as there had been at Ham Wall. Getting a whole fish down the gullet seemed a difficult manoeuvre for both heron and grebe, but the end result was the same for both birds (and both fish).

Roach was on the menu

Roach was on the menu for both the heron and the grebe

Seen at last! – Little Bittern at Ham Wall

“This is not a memorable wildlife experience”, the volunteer warden stressed as I arrived at the Little Bittern watchpoint at Ham Wall.

I have previous with little bitterns, so this warning didn’t deter me. Some years ago I’d gone down to Shapwick Heath, the reserve across the road to Ham Wall, on a futile bid to see otters (the result of an erroneous tip-off). One evening I noticed a stream of birders going down the tarmac path into Ham Wall. I decided I knew better than to follow the crowd, wandered down a grassy path that became marshy and impassable, and returned none the wiser.

The next day curiosity got the better of me, and I found myself with a group of birders who were saying that a Little Bittern had arrived – which I’d never heard of before, but could see it was the cause of a major twitch. Although it had showed well the previous day, it was now proving to be elusive, so I gave up after an hour or two; besides, I wasn’t about to become a twitcher, ahem.

It hung around most of the summer, calling forlornly for a mate. The next year, it turned up again. Hahaha, silly bird – you might think. Only this time it had a female in tow. This was a major surprise – it was only the second time little bitterns have been known to breed in the UK [news report]

Little Bittern at Ham Wall in 2010, illustrating what you can expect to see on a feeding flight - copyright Tom Mabbett

Little Bittern at Ham Wall in 2010, nicely illustrating what you can expect to see on a feeding flight – copyright Tom Mabbett

I figured out I could look for them on the day off at New Wine. When I arrived, I was told that since the chicks had already fledged, the parents had left the site a week earlier. Since then, the little bitterns have turned up and bred every year, but it has been kept quiet to protect the birds. This year, however, the RSPB announced their arrival, and set up a 24-hour watch on the nest site to protect the birds from egg collectors.

Now that the eggs having hatched, the parents can be seen on their feeding flights, to and from the nest. I decided that on my first day off after the ordination, I would go down. I went down the evening before, which was when the gloomy volunteer warden tried to dampen enthusiasm. No chance!

What makes them so difficult to see is that, like their large brown cousins, the normal bittern, they skulk around reedbeds. But whereas the larger ones can be seen easily when they fly lazily across, little bitterns dash fast, remaining just above the reeds for as short a time as they can manage. However, they have a highly distinctive wing pattern, with a large white elliptical patch on the upper part of the wing (see image above), which means they are easy to identify. [Little Bittern intro and specialist fact sheet]

I arrived at the site again on the Friday morning, at 7am: another birder had arrived at 5:30, and had already briefly seen one of the birds. We stood and stared out. After about half an hour, the male dashed across the reed-tops before dropping into a channel between the reeds. It was brief – a couple of seconds – but long enough for me to see it clearly with binoculars and know that I’d seen a little bittern. Phew!

At the same time, we could clearly hear a male little bittern barking: sometimes faint and distant, at other times rather closer – but always distinctive, repetitive and unmistakable. Herein lay a mystery: they don’t call once eggs have been laid. So why was this one barking?

After a while, the female suddenly emerged from the reeds and flew down the clear channel to the right-hand side of the reedbed, before veering left to return to the nest. Again, enough to see it clearly – and to notice the more muted, brownish colouring.

I missed the male when it appeared an hour later, but after a few minutes it cruised along the channel between the reeds closest to us. It was a marvellous sight: very easy to see the wing pattern, and to admire the bright orangey-yellow bill that it gets when it is breeding. Although it was still only brief, for me it really was a memorable wildlife experience.

Little bittern at Ham Wall in 2009. Image copyright James Packer

Little bittern at Ham Wall in 2009 – copyright James Packer

So why was there a male barking? It is now believed to be one or two unpaired males at Ham Wall, in addition to the nesting pair. The volunteer warden on the Friday afternoon, who had all the enthusiasm that the other one lacked, had heard two males barking simultaneously earlier in the week. The story of little bitterns at Ham Wall looks more likely to grow rather than diminish.

The RSPB are to be congratulated for setting up the watchpoint and co-ordinating volunteer wardens for it. Hardcore birdwatchers know what to expect, and it really was a memorable experience.

I stayed at the Bramble Hill campsite on the south-west side of Walton, which is a short distance from Ham Wall: I highly recommend this site for any birder who wants to camp near the Avalon Marshes. The facilities are excellent, and the owners very friendly and helpful.

A rare grebe & night-time ploughing

Going after a rare bird is a great way to spend a day off! With overcast skies in Worcestershire – limiting photographic opportunities considerably – I decided to travel down to Somerset to the RSPB’s Ham Wall reserve.

This is part of the Avalon Marshes, which is an ambitious project to return the area to its former wetland state. Commercial peat extraction during the last century left pits that soon filled with water, providing an ideal environment for the wide swathe of reedbeds which now exist there. It’s become a hotspot for rare bird sightings, also recently scoring national firsts for breeding little bitterns (2011) and great white egrets (2012).

Looking for the pied-billed grebe at Ham Wall

Looking for the pied-billed grebe at Ham Wall

Just to prove that I did actually see the pied-billed grebe at Ham Wall!

Just to prove that I did actually see the pied-billed grebe at Ham Wall!

I was hoping to see a pied-billed grebe, a bird usually found in the Americas, but which turns up in the UK roughly once every couple of years. I arrived at the site, and as I was setting up the scope the guy next to me asked whether I’d like him to point it in the right direction. I did – but it was a while before the grebe emerged from the reedbed it had slunk into.

For the entire time it was there, it remained on the far side of the lake from the viewing platform. It had its own agenda… once, after catching a large fish, it slipped back into the reeds for a while to digest its meal, and it was about half an hour before it re-emerged to swim around again.

I remained there for a couple of hours, glad of the extra layers I’d put on in the morning – until my toes began to lose contact! It was enjoyable sharing views with other visitors, though – returning the favour for the countless occasions when I looked at rarities through other people’s scopes.

Why farming here is hard

Night-time ploughing in Wichenford

Night-time ploughing in Wichenford

A few days ago I returned to the house at night and was rather surprised to hear activity on the farmland at the back. In fact the field was being ploughed – utilising the first opportunity in months when the land has been dry enough to do this. A couple of photos during the last month of one of the neighbouring field shows what local farmers have been up against. These are fields which would normally have been planted with winter wheat, but this has been impossible this year.

A scene last month at Hilltop Farm in Wichenford, a few minutes walk away

A scene last month at Hilltop Farm in Wichenford, a few minutes walk away

The same field in Wichenford, a month later

The same field in Wichenford, a month later: no ice, but just as wet