Bird Watch: Gone are the days of no egrets

Picture: Ron McCombe
Picture: Ron McCombe

A couple of weeks ago I paid a visit to Leighton Moss, near Silverdale.

This was the first time that I had been to this impressive RSPB reserve for quite a few years and I spent several enjoyable hours refamiliarising myself with the place and its myriad of birds.

As I wandered along the many pathways, I was reminded of countless previous visits and the amazing array of wildlife that I have had the pleasure to see here over the years.

The first time that I came to Leighton Moss was back in the late 1970s when I was 11 years old.

It was mid-winter and the meres were all frozen over.

I well recall seeing bitterns standing out on the ice in full view.

Even through my rather primitive (and very heavy) Russian binoculars I got amazing views of these secretive birds at was then one of their last remaining strongholds in the UK.

Fortunately the bittern’s fortunes have improved dramatically in other parts of Britain in the ensuing years and the species is making something of a comeback on a national level.

This is the result of major conservation efforts and habitat management but back in those days Leighton Moss held something like a quarter of the country’s declining population.

Sadly my recent visit didn’t reward me with any bittern sightings but something that was quite unthinkable when I first went on that cold and frosty Sunday was the sight of multiple little egrets, wintering marsh harriers and even a Cetti’s warbler.

Had any of those three species been found inhabiting Leighton Moss’s reedbeds 30-odd years ago it would have had local birdwatchers scrambling to the reserve for a glimpse of the then rare visitors.

In fact, I did see my first ever little egret and marsh harrier at Leighton Moss and both were significant events for me and many other birders alike.

Now both breed in considerable numbers in the North West and can be seen with relative ease.

As for Cetti’s warbler I had to go all the way to Kent to see my first of these skulking reed-dwellers, but as we continue to see changes in the climate such species can be expected to colonise areas that were previously out of range.

One of the more fascinating aspects of natural history is that change is all part of the process.

Some species of bird that were common when I was a kid are now in rapid decline.

My dad tells me of finding red-backed shrike nests when he was a lad and they’ve been all but extinct as a breeding bird in Britain for decades.

We now have little-ringed plovers and little egrets nesting in large numbers and other once exotic species continue to colonise year by year.

But while the UK’s birdwatchers welcome these new arrivals from the continent what will become of our declining species and can we do anything to halt their demise?

It would be a sad day indeed if Britain was devoid of the evocative sight and sounds of such birds as lapwing, curlew, cuckoo and skylark but if we don’t pay attention to these birds’ precarious fortunes we may just lose them forever.