There hasn’t been a great deal to be thankful for in 2020, but on the ornithological front Great Britain has two very notable reasons to consider this year a favourably memorable one. This is due to the very welcome return as potentially re-establishing UK breeding birds of two very sizeable, spectacular species. Veritable Big Birds of Sesame Street stature, in fact, at least when compared to most other feathered members of the British fauna, they were both formerly native here, but until now have been conspicuous only by their continued absence from our shores for several centuries, except as non-breeding vagrant visitors.
So what better way to end this dismal year than on an avian high, by documenting these two very significant success stories here as my final blog article for 2020 on ShukerNature.
CRANING FOR ATTENTION
A bird that commands attention for the simple fact that, at over 4 ft tall and sporting a wingspan of up to 8 ft across, it is difficult to overlook is the common crane Grus grus – and for especially good reason lately.
This is because, after having been exterminated in Britain by hunting and habitat destruction several centuries ago, during the 1600s, this stately long-necked species has recently made a dramatic comeback here, and for two wholly separate reasons.
Firstly, in 1979 a few individuals from mainland Europe returned to their former wetland homeland in Norfolk in eastern England and began to breed, gradually increasing their numbers during the next 40 years.
Secondly, conservation work to improve wetlands elsewhere in England eventually encouraged this greatly-welcomed prodigal bird to spread further afield too.
In April 2020, the UK Crane Working Group was pleased to announce that crane numbers in Britain have reached their highest number for more than 400 years, with 56 breeding pairs here last year and 26 chicks successfully reared.
So if this very positive trend continues, with crane numbers increasing still further and its geographical range continuing to expand, it seems likely that before very much longer, wildlife enthusiasts in the UK may not have to crane their own necks too hard in order to catch sight of this elegant bird here once again.
STORKING A PLACE IN HISTORY
With the common crane gradually re-establishing itself in Britain after having previously died out here back in the 1600s, I'm delighted to say that another tall, equally spectacular bird is seeking to do the same after an even longer absence.
Standing up to 4 ft tall and boasting a wingspan of up to 7 ft, the white stork Ciconia ciconia is last known to have successfully nested in the UK way back in 1416, when a pair did so at St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh. Since then, this famous species has been but a rare non-breeding visitor to Britain from continental Europe – until last year, that is.
Founded in 2016 by a partnership of private landowners and nature conservation charities, the White Stork Project operates in three localities in Surrey and West Sussex, southern England, and using a series of injured storks from Poland that cannot fly far it hopes to re-establish the species as a breeding bird here.
In 2019, one of its females plus an unringed, possibly wild stork visiting from the continent paired up, built a nest in a tree within the Knepp Castle Estate, West Sussex, and laid some eggs, but tragically they failed to hatch.
As all storks do, this pair then spent the winter in warmer, African climes, but they returned to the same estate this spring, built a nest in a tree near to the one that they used last year, the female laid some eggs again – and this time, in early May, they hatched!
The White Stork Project is naturally delighted, and hopes that this much-anticipated event will herald the beginning of the breeding pair's stately species staking its much-deserved place in Britain's natural history once more. The Project's aim is to restore a population of at least 50 breeding pairs of white storks in southern England by 2030.
Today, 31 December 2020, marks the 126th anniversary of the birth of my maternal grandmother, Gertrude Timmins, who passed away at the age of 99 in April 1994. I can still vividly remember Nan telling me when I was a youngster that once, while on a guided tour somewhere in Great Britain during the early 1900s, she saw an unusual bird that the guide identified as a crane. From her description of it, the bird seemed too small for such a species, but she stressed that the guide had insisted that it was indeed a crane. So who knows, maybe it was – a juvenile straggler, perhaps, a lonely stranger on the shore, like so many of us are.
Happy birthday, Nan – how I wish that you, Mom, and all of my family were here with me to celebrate your big day today, and to greet the New Year all together tomorrow.
Wishing all of my ShukerNature readers a very happy, healthy 2021, and hoping that it will inspire me to prepare and post many exciting new blog articles here on ShukerNature!