Young birds in the colony
Photos are copyright and used
I have a lifelong interest in the natural world, particularly birds; and I'm very aware of the responsibility we have to protect and preserve the living creatures with whom we share it. I have been watching birds all my life, and have been a licensed bird ringer for over forty years. Life took me from my early passion for ornithology into other directions; but I have spoken and written about the interplay between science and faith in many different forums.
Living in Somerset has given me the chance to get involved with a number of specific conservation projects, mostly in partnership with the RSPB, and this in turn has led to the opportunity to speak about birds in schools and at local conferences.
The Common Crane
Cranes are magnificent birds; 'medieval herons' as I heard them described recently by a fascinated onlooker. Once common throughout the UK, scores of places up and down the country are named after their former population of cranes. But cranes are large, standing up to four feet tall, and roast well; we know that the Iron Age inhabitants of Glastonbury Lake Village ate them, and we know that in 1251 King Henry III hosted a Christmas feast at which 115 cranes were served. King Henry was not alone in his taste for crane, and by the 17th century the crane was extinct here. In recent years, however, a small colony has established itself in Norfolk, and 2010 saw the start of an ambitious project to bring them back to the South West.
Over a five year period, 93 common cranes were hatched from eggs donated from Germany, reared at Slimbridge WWT and released onto the Somerset Levels. The programme was successful, and cranes now breed across the South West. I have been working as part of a small RSPB team to monitor and ring birds from the new generation of wild cranes. Birds are fitted with a radio tag and individually identifiable set of lightweight plastic rings, and released to join their parents. To find out more visit the Crane Project website, which explains how the cranes were reared and gives a wealth of information about the species and its history.
For centuries cranes were a conspicuous part of our landscape. Celebrated in poetry from the time of Homer onwards, they were included in many of the collections known in the Middle Ages as bestiaries - an early form of natural history enclopaedia which provided information about the species and stories illustrating how it lived and what we can learn from it. One of these was made in the 13th century here in SW England, and the British Library has put together a fascinating animation to tell the bird's story. Watch it by clicking the image on the right, and see if you can spot the accurate bits!
Today we know that cranes live for up to 14 years; they find a mate through a carefully choreographed dancing display, and pair for life. Their unique bugling call can be heard up to three miles away. In the winter they come together in flocks, splitting into pairs and establishing distinct territories in summer. They feed on the unimproved grasslands and winter stubble fields of the Somerset levels and moors, and roost in pools of shallow water and reedbeds.
The Great White Egret
For cranes, it's been a matter of bringing back birds which we had lost; the next project has been about welcoming a species which is colonising the UK for the first time: the great white egret. Once killed for their magnificent bridal feathers which were sought after for the decoration of ladies' hats, the egret family declined in numbers across Europe during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But fashions changed, protection measures were put in place, and the climate warmed. As a child I watched the little egret spread from its European stronghold into East Anglia and then gradually across England, and over the last twenty years it has been followed by its larger cousin the great white egret - which bred successfully for the first time here on the Somerset Levels in 2012.
Wanting to find out more about how best to welcome and safeguard these magnificent white herons, we have started a ringing study programme to see what we can find out about this new UK species. Over the last few years a team of volunteers have watched over the first nest sites, monitored the behaviour of the breeding birds, ringed some of the first chicks and kept records of their dispersal. This has involved drones, kyaks, and hours of patient observation. Birds now nest in colonies scattered across the Avalon Marshes, and their numbers are growing year on year.
At first sight the great white egret is just white. But the bird has many ways of making white into a statement. Breeding adults acquire vivid green skin around the base of their bills, and their brown legs turn a deep and impressive red. Over its workaday plumage the bird grows a bridal gown of loose feathers which can be raised and lowered in display. Pairs build stick nests on rickety reed platforms, and lay four brilliant blue eggs; typically two chicks survive, and two ringers paddle carefully into the swamp in the early morning to ring them. All the ringed birds have fledged successfully, and have been reported from as far afield as Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Kent and Warwickshire. Two of them have returned to make breeding attempts here on the Avalon Marshes, and birds have now nested in other parts of England too.
If you see any colour ringed great white egrets please let me know!
Why should we bother to look after the natural environment and the creatures with which we share it? For many reasons, not least that it's where we live, and we have been given responsibility to look after it. It's now recognised that our economic, physical, emotional and spiritual health is directly linked to our stewardship of the natural environment - a recent study concludes that the more bird species we see each day, the better our mental health will be. Much research has been done and many inspiring books written. I recommend a few recent works in particular:
A King's feast : The Bayeux tapestry
Watch an animation of a 13th century
The hay meadows of West Sedgemoor
Cranes bugling by Nick Upton
West Sedgemoor RSPB reserve
A crane chick is released after ringing
Winter cranes in Somerset by Nick Upton
Winter cranes in Brandenburg, Germany
Places named after cranes
Revd Dr Alison Morgan