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Arrivals from the dry Mediterranean brighten rainy Britain

Last modified: 29 May 2014

Black winged stilt at Medmerry

It's amazing that a pair of black-winged stilts discovered Medmerry so soon after it was created

Image: Ivan Lang

A mini influx of black-winged stilts has brought a touch of the Mediterranean to southern England, as two pairs of these exotic-looking wading birds are attempting to nest at RSPB sites in West Sussex and Kent.

It is thought that a dry spell in southern Spain has displaced these wetland birds to southern Britain. And it is believed that a changing climate may bring these birds to Britain more regularly in future. The only times black-winged stilts have bred successfully in the UK was in Norfolk in 1987 and Nottinghamshire in 1945.

Twenty-four hour watch

The RSPB has set up a 24-hour watch on the nests with the help of local volunteers, giving the birds the best chance of fledging young and to protect them from egg collectors, who target the nests of the rarest birds in Britain.

To have the stilts turn up so soon after Medmerry was created is such an exciting surprise

One pair is nesting on the RSPB’s newest reserve in West Sussex, Medmerry, the other pair at the RSPB reserve at Cliffe Pools on the north Kent marshes.

The stilts’ presence is a tribute to the wetland conditions at Medmerry and Cliffe Pools. Medmerry is the largest open-coast managed realignment scheme in Europe and the RSPB’s newest reserve.

Medmerry was created between 2011 and 2013 by the Environment Agency and consists of mudflats, tidal lagoons, saltmarsh, wildlife-friendly farmland and dragonfly-rich ditches. 

Pete Hughes, Medmerry’s senior warden, said, “To have the stilts turn up so soon after Medmerry was created is such an exciting surprise. Our pair faces many threats, whether from egg collectors, the British summer, disturbance or predators, so it is touch and go whether they will be successful, but we are doing everything we can to give them the best chance.

“They have built a nest on the mud and laid eggs, and now the male and female are taking turns incubating them. If all goes well, the chicks are expected to hatch in about three weeks. What is nice is that Medmerry has also attracted breeding avocets, the bird on the RSPB’s logo, which help shield the stilts.

“This is really exciting news and the first time we have had black-winged stilts breeding on the reserve here at Cliffe Pools,” said Warden Andy Daw. “They have visited before and a pair was seen about seven years ago on the reserve but they did not produce any young.

“The eggs are due to hatch in June and we are doing everything we can to make sure this is a successful breeding attempt. The other pair is in undergrowth and we have not confirmed yet that they are nesting,” Andy said. “The breeding pair is visible through telescopes and binoculars. The fact they are on an island is helpful because there is less risk from predators.”

Anticipating new colonists

Gwyn Williams is the RSPB’s Head of Reserves and Protected Areas. He said: “With a changing climate we’re anticipating that several more southern European bird species may colonise southern England in the next few years, following on from the already-established little egret and more recently great white egret. 

'So we’re planning for their arrival by creating and managing the ideal conditions on our nature reserves, especially wetlands, with these potential colonists in mind.”

Charlie Smith of the Environment Agency said: 'It is really exciting and rewarding for the Environment Agency, that a scheme designed to protect people and property has provided habitat for one of the rarest birds in Britain. Black-winged stilts are choosy about their breeding sites!” said Charlie Smith, Technical Specialist for the Environment Agency.

“It's brilliant that the project has created the right habitat and conditions for the birds to take up residency so soon after completion of the work. We fully support the RSPB in their endeavours to protect the nest and hope to see fluffy young birds over the coming weeks.”

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