Discovering the rare spoonbill

Discovering the rare spoonbill


Posted 22nd August


Lead image courtesy of © Brian Macfarlane

Similar in size to a grey heron, albeit slightly smaller, the spoonbill's plumage is completely white with the exception of during breeding season, when adults will show a small patch of yellowish feathers on their chest

In the summer, mature birds will also have a rather fetching, shaggy crest at the back of their heads. However, by far, the most noticeable feature is the one for which they are named - their enormous, spatula-like bill. Spoonbills generally feed in flocks, swinging their heads from side to side through shallow pools of water. It's here the remarkable bill comes into its own - held slightly open, it's packed full of sensors that will detect minute vibrations. Once they are located, any unlucky beetles, crustaceans, worms, small fish and even tadpoles and frogs, will have no chance of escaping.

One of the more handsome birds to visit our shores is also one of our most recent avian colonists. Despite being bred in East Anglia during Medieval times, spoonbills had not bred in Britain for over 300 years until, in 2010, when a colony was found in the north Norfolk coast, where six pairs raised ten chicks.

Conservationists were hopeful that the birds would return again, and that, most gratifyingly, is what happened. Eight pairs bred and successfully fledged 14 young – since then, they become regular summer visitors.

A final word of caution. If you would like to see a famous bill, you have to be prepared to be patient. Spoonbills notoriously spend a large amount of their time asleep, with their heads tucked under a wing. The first view the majority of birdwatchers have is a rather undistinguished group of white lumps sat on a muddy spit. Later in the day often proves to be a good time to catch them being more active (they're actually partly nocturnal), swinging their heads in a characteristic, almost synchronised fashion.

How to do it

Bring your binoculars, and a lot of patience. These sleepy birds can take a while to wake up and to start putting their wonderful spoon-shaped bill to use.

If you're unable to get to one of the special places listed below, they can become a frequent summer visitor to other coastal lagoons and large wetlands in the south and east of England.

As their nesting birds can be easily disturbed, visitors are unable to view the breeding colony. However, spoonbills feed in sizeable flocks along the Norfolk coast. The best site for this is most likely Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Cley Marshes, with a record flock of 30 birds recorded in 2014. Here, shallow pools and scrapes offer an ideal place for birds to feed, and they will often be watched at close-quarters from the comfort of numerous viewing hides.

Dorset, Brownsea Island

Suffolk, Hazlewood Marshes

Text and information courtesy of The Wildlife Trusts





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