NATURE NOTES - Spot the spoonbill

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IT’S quite a while since we went dashing off to see something rare but this weekend again saw us heading for the RSPB reserve at Marshside Southport where a pretty rare bird had been seen on and off for a few weeks.

As always there was no guarantee that we would catch up with the bird as the tide was out and the usual feeding habitats covered thousands of hectares of saltmarsh! So what was the bird?

Here’s a few clues:

The bird is all white except for its dark legs, black bill with a yellow tip, and a yellow breast patch like a pelican. It has a crest in the breeding season. Non-breeders lack the crest and breast patch, and immature birds have a pale bill and black tips to the primary flight feathers.

Unlike herons, these birds fly with their necks outstretched. The Eurasian one differs from the African one with which it overlaps in winter, in that the latter species has a red face and legs, and no crest. They are mostly silent.

Even at their breeding colonies the main sounds are bill snapping, occasional deep grunting and occasional trumpeting noises.

Most birds migrate to the tropics in winter, with European breeders mainly going to Africa, but a few remaining in mild winter areas of western Europe south to the United Kingdom.

It was extirpated from the United Kingdom in the 17th century but sporadic breeding attempts in the early 21st Century culminated with the formation of a colony at Holkham in Norfolk in 2010. In 2011, 8 breeding pairs nested, successfully fledging 14 young.

Any ideas?

The bird is a spoonbill – and guess what’s its defining feature is – yes black eyes!

Seriously it really does live up to its name and has the most wonderful large spoon like bill. The Eurasian spoonbill forages alone or in small groups, wading methodically through shallow water whilst sweeping its distinctive bill from side to side in search of prey.

Small fish, aquatic insects, shrimp and other invertebrates comprise the bulk of its diet, but it will also take algae and fragments of aquatic plants, although these may just be accidentally eaten. Foraging activity generally peaks around morning and evening, except in coastal areas, where it is governed by the timing of low tide.

As usual for us when we got there we were told by the couple of dozen or so smug birders with scopes all set up looking into the distance – “its just put its head down – its been out feeding for ages!”

So that’s the way our rare bird trips end with “well we nearly saw it!”

Setting my scope up in the same general direction as theirs I started focusing on a small white blob. The blob was only the spoonbill, which had decided that breakfast had not quite finished and a second sitting was needed!

We got some fantastic views in the hour or so we were there and at one point a little egret obliged by standing side by side to show the size difference.

It was a happy drive home!