The Rise of the Herons

The Rise of the Herons

In the early days of the reserve, way back in the mists of time (well, the 1970s) the only species of heron you were likely to see at Rye Harbour was the familiar grey heron. In recent years several other species have made the reserve and its new and more extensive wetland habitats their home.

Little egret 1

Probably the most familiar of these is little egret (above). This small white heron used to be quite common in the UK, but persecution and possibly climate change saw numbers dwindle and it became extinct here by the end of the 1500s and by the early part of the 20th century it had largely retreated to southern Europe. Since then however it has recolonised much of its northern European haunts and current UK population is around 4,500 birds with perhaps 450 breeding pairs. The first record at Rye Harbour was in 1985 and from 1995 it become increasingly frequent and is now common and familiar sight on the reserve all year round. The largest counts generally involve birds roosting at Castle Water (the maximum was 102), though recent maxima have involved birds feeding on the new saltmarsh and adjacent areas of Harbour Farm (20 in photo below). While this species has not yet bred at Rye Harbour a pair were observed on several occasions trying out nests in the cormorant colony at Castle Water during 2018.

Little egrets x20 1

Like the little egret, the bittern is another species which is making a comeback in the UK after disappearing due to persecution and habitat loss. Rye Harbour is currently probably the ‘hot spot’ for bittern in Sussex, though this was not always the case and prior to the mid-1990s this medium-sized brown heron was a scarce visitor to the reserve. Since then, however, it has been recorded annually in increasing numbers. Most are seen during the winter months, moving from their territories in Northern Europe as the weather gets colder and their home reedbeds freeze and maximum counts involve birds present during cold winters, with 10 in 2003 the peak total. In 2003, extensive reedbed creation was undertaken at Castle Water as part of the EU LIFE – Nature project “Reedbeds for Bitterns”, and from 2009 ‘booming’ males have been heard annually, with two present in 2015, though breeding has not yet been confirmed.

Bittern 1

The first reserve record for great white egret was in 2003 though it remained a very uncommon visitor to the reserve until 2012, when up to two birds were seen regularly. In the last year up to 12 birds have been seen on the reserve and between three and five have been present at Castle Water during 2018.

Great white egret 1

Of the remaining species of heron recorded on the reserve, little bittern has been seen only once, a juvenile at Ternery Pool in 1977. This leaves us with, purple heron, night heron and cattle egret, all of which are  irregular and uncommon visitors, with only a handful of sightings for each. Of these three, the cattle egret was the last to be recorded (on Castle Farm in late October 2018) and has become increasingly common in the UK over the past few years, (with all four species breeding in the UK since the turn of the century).

While not herons, three other closely related species are also worth a mention, namely white stork, glossy ibis and spoonbill. The first two are rare visitors to the reserve with records in four and five years respectively, the last for both species in 2005. In contrast, spoonbill have been recorded almost annually since 1970 and while initially irregular in small numbers, largely during May, June and August, have been seen more in recent years, with seven in 2016. During 2018 spoonbill has been recorded on over 50 dates so far, most recently up to three birds have been present on the ‘Salt Pool’ on Harbour Farm, with the latest sighting of two on the 11 November. 

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