RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Fascinating history of avocets

Avocets are such striking pied pipers that the Georgians could not resist putting them into glass cases where they could be viewed in the comfort of their own homes.

At the moment Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 they were extinct as breeding birds in Britain and remained so until 1947 by which time the fashion for fur, feather, and fin as drawing room ornamentation had more or less changed. There are pessimists who suggest that the ‘cobbler’s awl’ –to give this bird with its upturned beak its Sussex name – had vanished as early as 1820. This curious bird which looks almost like Pierrot, still came past our shores on migration to Holland and the rest of the Baltic during migration, however. Thirty of them were given a warm welcome by Sussex shore-shooters in 1888 and were stuffed.

In 1905 a further 16 took up residence for the autumn in Chichester Harbour but there is no record of their fate though one can presume. In 1927 one avocet was seen near Newhaven in the company of a herd of curlews and probably got a glass eye as well.

Even as late as the 1930s ‘pipit poppers’ as old Colonel Peter Hawker called them in his memoirs a hundred years earlier, were shooting literally buckets of small passerines (day-flying perching birds) on the marshes during migration time, when a valuable rarity such as a bluethroat could be sold on to taxidermists. Then in 1947 a few courageous avocets settled themselves on the Suffolk coast at Havergate Island to see if the natives were friendly.

Indeed they were, for the RSPB took immediate action, posting watchers all around the seven brave pairs of birds and 16 young avocets got airborne that summer. However, the next year when five pairs returned, a swarm of rats took immediate action too and unseen by the watchers destroyed the new colony. The RSPB raised £5,000 – a fortune then – and sealed the site from rats and everything else. In 1949 forty young reached the flight stage. It is one of the most spectacular conservation success stories of all time and of course has never looked back.

It wasn’t quite the end of continuous problems that needed solving of course. Last year badgers tested the defences and got themselves free night-time meals of eggs and adult birds brooding the nests.

Today, if you look up Recurvirostra avosetta in that indispensable book Bird Atlas 2007-2011 published by the BTO you will see on the maps how the species has spread right across England and even into Wales. It breeds well inland on Fens and fresh marshes, and there are now altogether 95 separate breeding sites with 1,600 pairs.

The winter population has jumped to 7,500 individuals. Last year I saw a large flock of avocets wintering in Portugal on the Tagus estuary. They flew quite close and made spectacular fly-pasts with their black and white bodies and wings.

This photo is one of the BTO images, and the photo of the Nutbourne seawall path going towards the avocet high-tide roost I took during my walk last month. Do go along to see them while they are still there.