NATURE NOTES - The elegant egret

A BIRD that sometimes turns up in Wigan seems to have become the latest species to be added to the breeding birds list of the UK.

The great white egret is more usually found in mainland Europe, but in recent years, there have been increased sightings of these elegant birds in England, a small number of which have been visiting the reedbeds and wetlands of the Avalon Marshes.

Until now, none of these visitors have nested and there is growing excitement that this summer could see the beginning of a growing trend. 

The female bird was ringed as a nestling in May 2009 in Besne, in France, and records show she travelled to Lancashire (we think this is the same bird we saw at Leighton Moss in 2010), Wales and Gloucestershire before visiting the Somerset Levels for the first time in April 2010. 

She has stayed in the region ever since and managed to cope with two relatively cold British winters.

Local birdwatchers spotted nesting activity on the Shapwick Heath Reserve in early April this year and alerted the Somerset Ornithological Society, Natural England and the RSPB. 

The three organisations immediately established a 24 hour nest watch operation with volunteers, who have currently clocked up over 1,000 hours of nest-watching time. 

This ensured the birds were not disturbed whilst they completed their nest, concealed deep in the reed beds. 

This species tends to return to the same nest site each year, so it is hoped that this pair will be pioneers and that a colony of great white egrets will become established on the Avalon Marshes.

Simon Clarke, Reserve Manager for Shapwick Heath said; “This is hugely exciting and we’ve been keeping everything crossed and a close eye on the nest since the signs of nesting activity were first noticed last month. 

“In the last few years, we’ve been carrying out a lot of work to improve the reserve’s reedbeds for bitterns and otters – but it seems great white egrets have also appreciated the work we’ve done”.

Tony Whitehead speaking for the RSPB said: “This is another major step forward for nature conservation.

“The RSPB is delighted to be working alongside NE and the Somerset Ornithological Society to protect these pioneering birds as they breed for the first time. 

“Places such as the Avalon Marshes are vital in providing valuable space for newly colonising species as well as safeguarding populations of vulnerable birds such as bittern.

“And the really exciting thing is now predicting what’s going to turn up next - it’s the sort of place where anything’s possible.”

Simon added: “Despite the appalling weather conditions these egrets have shown extreme diligence in tending the nest site.”

Hopefully it wont be too long before these magnificent birds become a more common visitor here in our Wigan wetlands!