Cattle Egrets and Marsh Mallows

In February 1981 a carload of birders made the journey from Surrey to Anglesey to twitch a rare species of southern heron. We arrived at Aber to watch a Cattle Egret, making its way through a herd of livestock in a roadside field. Many of our fellow observers that day joined us in ticking the said species, a good lifer, one not to be underestimated - after all, they didn't come along all that often...

Fast forward 41 years, and I am standing on a footpath that runs alongside the River Arun in West Sussex. From where I am I can see across the Arundel Wildfowl Trust reserve, and, scanning the far tree-line, it is possible to make out a number of white shapes perched within them. I counted 20, maybe 22 - every single one a Cattle Egret. 22! What a number - but I am expecting more. This is a known roost, and the numbers reported joining it each evening are higher still. My reckoning was that if I arrived early enough in the morning I could count them leave and so gain an accurate, similarly high number. It was now 07.00hrs and nothing appeared to have left the site yet. It was not until 07.20 that the first bird lifted from the green canopy and lazily make its way along the reserve, heading north, cutting across the river and out onto the floodplain beyond. For the next 10-15 minutes the odd bird, maybe 2-3 together, take off and follow suit. All kept low, some of them flying directly over my head, with traces of summer colour, an orange-buff staining to the crown, chest and mantle adorning a few. By 07.50hrs they started to leave in greater numbers, the largest being a group of seven until, just after 08.05hrs, the last bird departs. I have counted 51 leave the roost. Numbers that, back in 1981, would have been unthinkable. Many of these birds did not fly far, pitching down 0.5 - 1km away to join cattle loafing in a field close to the railway line. I went to try and get closer, but the footpath went nowhere near them. So I turned south and followed the river to Littlehampton. 

I have done this walk before, and it is rather good. At the right time of year there are migrant passerines galore to winkle out of the hedgerows and fields, but August 1st is a trifle early to hope for too much, and so it proved, although the walk was not without highlights.19 Little Egret, two Marsh Harrier, 11 Red Kite, a Peregrine, two Hobby, 4 Curlew, 12 Common Sandpiper, 19 Mediterranean Gulls (including 10 juveniles, below), a Kingfisher, three Stonechats, a Raven and two Yellowhammer were more than enough to keep my interest up. On the return leg I stared out across the floodplain to the distant South Downs hills and could see many high, large dots wheeling around - no doubt Common Buzzards, Red Kites and Ravens.

Although I seem to have lost my botanists hat I did take in the localised Marsh Mallow (top). Downriver, between Arundel and Littlehampton this plant is sparsely found, but upriver, between Arundel and the Black Rabbit pub, it is plentiful. The South Downs will soon be crawling with warblers, chats and flycatchers. I hope to be among them...


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