Great white egrets nest in UK for first time

Watch the great white egret pair flying to their nest

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Great white egrets are nesting in the UK for the first time at Natural England's Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve in Somerset.

Staff and volunteers have been protecting the rare visitors with 24-hour surveillance of their nest.

It could mean that the UK's first great white egret colony is established.

The nesting pair were filmed by a BBC crew exclusively for BBC Two's Springwatch.

Other breeding successes:

Great bustard (c) Morales
  • The once common great bustard has been successfully reintroduced from Russia to Salisbury Plain in England
  • Bitterns are also booming, with over 50 nesting sites across the UK after being classified as extinct in the late 19th Century
  • In 2010 the first British breeding colony of spoonbills in 300 years established at a nature reserve in Norfolk
  • After a 400-year absence cranes are once again breeding in the UK with wild populations in Norfolk and Suffolk and a breeding programme in Somerset

"To have an amazing bird like a great white egret, which is the size of a grey heron [and] bright white, nesting here is just phenomenal," said Simon Clarke, reserve manager for Shapwick Heath.

Although found across the world with an estimated population of two million birds, there are no records of great white egrets having bred in the UK.

A local birdwatcher first alerted staff that a pair were showing signs of nesting behaviour on the 7 April.

Mr Clarke and his team immediately contacted colleagues at Natural England as well as seeking advice from the RSPB, as they have experience of rare birds breeding on their reserves.

"We needed to get a 24-hour warden service up to protect the nest from the risk of 'eggers' [egg collectors]," he told BBC Nature.

Local volunteers from Natural England, the RSPB and the Somerset Ornithological Society were quick to help out.

"Between the three organisations and staff as well, we've been able to offer 24-hour protection through what we saw as the dangerous period for the eggs."

Once peat workings, the Avalon Marshes have been restored to reedbeds over the past 20 years, becoming a haven for many once rare species.

Birds such as bittern and marsh harriers are now thriving and mammals such as the otter and the water vole are becoming more common.

Springwatch 2012

  • The full story about great white egrets and the Avalon Marshes can be seen during Springwatch, which begins broadcasting on BBC Two at 2000 BST on Monday 28 May.

Richard Taylor-Jones was filming those success stories for BBC Springwatch, so filming nesting great white egrets was a "happy accident".

Natural England staff let him into the egret secret but immediately swore him to secrecy to protect the birds.

"I felt incredibly privileged.

"You hear about new species coming to Britain but to get something as dramatic and impressive as a great white egret breeding here and knowing that I was the first person filming that very first [breeding] attempt is really satisfying," Mr Taylor-Jones told BBC Nature.

Egrets were persecuted for their long breeding plumage feathers to the extent that an estimated 200,000 birds were killed in a single year at the turn of last century.

Great white egret flying with nesting material in beak (c) Mike Hannon Great white egrets are spreading into new areas

However, the population is recovering and is now spreading into new areas further north and west from their strongholds in Russia and eastern Europe.

Mr Clarke said the news was very exciting and that it was the "natural progression" for egrets to colonise suitable habitats in the UK.

"Avalon Marshes is interspersed with water bodies which are packed full of food. It's an ideal place for them to feed and the ideal habitat for them to be nesting in as well," said Mr Clarke.

Clutch sizes are usually three or four eggs and adults tend to return to the same nest site if they successfully raise chicks there.

The single nest could be the start of a future UK breeding colony of great white egrets and signs are looking positive for success.

The adult birds are making regular flights into the nest, indicating that they are feeding young, although Natural England is waiting until chicks have been positively identified before it can announce the UK's newest species of breeding bird.

"We're keeping everything crossed basically and we're just watching and hoping we get some good news in the next few weeks," said Mr Clarke.

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