A nest with 10 day old chicks
Egret AAF on the Avalon Marshes
Egret AAU at Frampton Marsh Lincs
Egret AAR at Newtown, Powys
Egret AAU at Staveley NR, Yorks
Egret AAC returns to breed at Ham Wall
Bird populations are in constant change. In many cases this means decline. But two projects on the Somerset Levels and Moors focus on species whose numbers are increasing. Partly this is due to the restoration and creation of new habitat by the various wildlife organisations which work in partnership here; partly due to an ambitious reintroduction programme; and partly perhaps due to climate change, which has facilitated the spontaneous colonisation of a species new to this country.
The Common Crane
Cranes are magnificent birds; 'medieval herons' as a fascinated onlooker said recently. Once common throughout the UK, scores of places up and down the country are named after their former population of cranes. But cranes are large, standing up to four feet tall, and roast well; we know that the Iron Age inhabitants of Glastonbury Lake Village ate them, and we know that in 1251 King Henry III hosted a Christmas feast at which 115 cranes were served. By the 17th century the crane was extinct in this country. But in recent years a small colony has established itself in Norfolk, and 2010 saw the launch of an ambitious project to bring them back to the South West.
Over a five year period, 93 common cranes were hatched from eggs donated from Germany, reared at Slimbridge WWT and released onto the Somerset Levels. The programme was successful, and cranes now breed across the South West. I have been working as part of a small RSPB team to monitor and ring birds from the new generation of wild cranes. Birds are fitted with a radio tag and individually identifiable set of lightweight plastic rings, and released to join their parents. The Somerset population is now on course to become self sustaining, with birds breeding in an increasing number of locations. In 2021 a milestone was reached with the first fledging of a third-generation bird, reared by a bird ringed as a chick in 2016. In all, 15 young fledged this year, three of which were colour ringed - the most successful year of the project to date.
For centuries cranes were a conspicuous part of our landscape. Celebrated in poetry from the time of Homer onwards, they were included in many of the collections known in the Middle Ages as bestiaries - an early form of natural history enclopaedia which provided information about the species and stories illustrating how it lived and what we can learn from it. One of these was made in the 13th century here in SW England, and the British Library has put together a fascinating animation to tell the bird's story. Watch it by clicking the image below right, and see if you can spot the accurate bits!
Today we know that cranes live for up to 14 years; they find a mate through a carefully choreographed dancing display and usually (but not always!) pair for life. Their unique bugling call can be heard up to three miles away. In the winter they come together in flocks; in spring they split into pairs and establish distinct territories. They feed on unimproved grasslands and winter stubble, roost and nest in or near water, and lead their chicks out to forage in mature hay fields. They are, once again, becoming a familiar part of our rural landscape.
NEW: If you are interested in finding out more about the habits and behaviour of wild cranes I recommend Bernard Wessling's fascinating new book The Call of the Cranes - Expeditions into a Mysterious World (Springer 2022). Based on many years of crane observations, Bernard has made a huge contribution towards our understanding of this species.
The Great White Egret
For cranes, it's been a matter of bringing back birds which we had lost; the next project has been about welcoming a species which is colonising the UK for the first time: the great white egret. Once killed for their magnificent bridal feathers which were sought after for the decoration of ladies' hats (and so helping to inspire the foundation of the RSPB), the egret family declined in numbers across Europe during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But fashions changed, protection measures were put in place, and the climate warmed. Fifty years ago we watched the little egret spread from its European stronghold into East Anglia and then gradually across England, and over the last twenty years it has been followed by its larger cousin the great white egret - which bred successfully for the first time here on the Somerset Levels in 2012.
At first sight the great white egret is just white. But the bird has many ways of making white into a statement. Breeding adults acquire vivid green skin around the base of their bills, which turn from yellow to black, and their legs change from brown to a deep and impressive red. Over its workaday plumage the bird grows a bridal gown of loose feathers which can be raised and lowered in display. Pairs build stick nests on rickety reed platforms, usually in colonies which here in Somerset can number up to ten nests. They lay three or four blue eggs; sibling rivalry is intense, and typically two chicks survive. Once fledged, the young birds disperse widely, often congregating in winter roosts before settling down to breed in their third year.
Wanting to find out more about how best to welcome and safeguard these magnificent white herons, we have started a ringing study programme to see what we can find out about this new UK species. Over the last few years a team of volunteers have watched over the first nest sites, monitored the behaviour of the breeding birds, ringed some of the first chicks and kept records of their dispersal. This has involved drones, kayaks, and hours of patient observation. Birds now nest in colonies scattered across the Avalon Marshes, and their numbers are growing year on year: from an initial two nests in 2012, there were 37 nests in ten locations in 2021. Between 2016 and 2022 we have colour ringed 29 of the nestlings, and most of these ringed birds have been resighted in locations across the country - from County Durham in the north to the Isle of Wight in the south, and from the coast of Wales in the west to the coast of Suffolk in the east. At least two of the older birds have returned to breed here on the Avalon Marshes.
The colour ringing project is registered with the British Trust for Ornithology and the European colour ringing scheme, which can be accessed here.
In order to further our understanding of the habits and requirements of this species we are reliant on sightings of the ringed birds. So if you see any colour ringed great white egrets please do drop me an email at email@example.com, and I will let you know when and where it was ringed, and where it's been seen since then.
Why should we bother to look after the natural environment and the creatures with which we share it? For many reasons, not least that it's where we live, and we have been given responsibility to look after it. It's now recognised that our economic, physical, emotional and spiritual health is directly linked to our stewardship of the natural environment - a recent study concludes that the more bird species we see each day, the better our mental health will be. To find out more try the following:
Somerset cranes bugling by Nick Upton
A crane chick is released after ringing
Cranes in flight over Somerset
Crane chick in the hay field by Alick Simmons
Winter cranes in Somerset by Nick Upton
Winter cranes in Brandenburg, Germany
Watch an animation of a 13th century
Places named after cranes
Photos are copyright and used