Birdwatch: Remarkable year for spoonbills

It has been some year for spoonbills. Picture by Natural England/PA Wire.
It has been some year for spoonbills. Picture by Natural England/PA Wire.
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In a first for Yorkshire a pair of spoonbills has successfully hatched young at the RSPB’s Fairburn Ings reserve near Castleford in what has been a remarkable year for them.

Up to seven of these extraordinary white heron-like birds with black legs and enormous spoon-shaped bills have been visiting the reserve this year, one of which was a bird ringed last year in Holland and which has visited a number of reserves across England this summer while there have also been numerous other sightings across Yorkshire.

But staff at Fairburn, once they realised that the spoonbills might not just be passing through and that breeding might be taking place kept a close watch on developments.

Darren Starkey, Senior Site Manager of RSPB Aire Valley, said “When we suspected they might be feeding chicks, the warden and volunteer team took turns keeping watch for feeding flights

“These spoonbill chicks – known here as ‘teaspoons’ – have been a long time coming, following a lot of hard habitat management work. They’re currently hidden away deep in the vegetation but we hope they’ll be much more visible when they fledge.”

Spoonbills have been visiting Fairburn during the summer for a number of years- in 2011 I watched two of them engaging in courtship displays including much bill rattling. But until now it appears that the birds involved were not mature enough to breed successfully.

In the Middle Ages spoonbills were widespread in this country, especially in East Anglia, and featured as an item of fare in many banquets.

But the draining of fenlands under the direction of the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden eliminated much of the spoonbill’s breeding sites and this, combined with them being targeted by hunters and egg collectors resulted in their disappearance by 1668.

But increased protection and a rapid increase of the Dutch population resulted in more young spoonbills crossing the North Sea to prospect for nest sites here and, after several attempts in the 1990s, the first confirmed breeding here for 300 years took place in Lancashire in 1999, when a pair reared two young on the Ribble estuary.

In 2008, a pair reared three young in Dumfries and Galloway and another pair bred successfully in Scotland last year.

But the most exciting development of all came in Norfolk in 2010 when a spoonbill colony of at least four nesting pairs moved onto the Holkham National Nature Reserve among a mixed colony of cormorants, grey herons and little egrets – and fledged 10 young.

Since then, family groups of adult and young spoonbills are now regularly reported along the Norfolk, Sussex and Lincolnshire coasts while the Dutch population has now reached more than 2,400 pairs.

The latest breeding success at Fairburn Ings is part of the trend for long-legged water birds moving north with little, cattle and great white egrets all expanding their range north and west because of improvements in conservation. There has been a spread of wetland creation and conservation across Europe and this country and more protection from egg collectors and hunters while the birds have also been helped by the lack of really cold winters.

Raptors have been enjoying the hot dry weather with plenty of thermals to soar on. Honey buzzards and goshawks have both been showing from the Wykeham raptor viewpoint in North Yorkshire while seven species of raptor were seen at Barden Scale, North Yorkshire. Ospreys have been reported at a number of places across the county.

A female red-backed shrike was seen at the Bempton Cliffs reserve on Sunday while a first summer male common rosefinch was singing near Buckton pond.