Country diary: preening avocets attract attention | Country diary

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Marbled white butterflies are resting on the flower heads, stretching out their chequered wings towards the early-morning sun in ritualistic greeting, warming themselves at the start of the day. Nearby, the orange and black caterpillars of cinnabar moths feed on groups of tall, yellow-flowered common ragwort plants.

Song thrushes and greenfinches sing from the tops of the trees bending in the breeze. Leaves shake with parties of adult birds and their young. I watch three chiffchaffs chase each other in and out of the branches, over the brambles and back up the trees. A male common redstart lands on a shining barbed wire fence before taking off again to catch small flies mid-air. A black and red cinnabar moth flutters across my path.

I walk on and climb uphill through the woods towards the viewpoint that looks out across the northern brooks. Although many of the pools have dried up around the reserve, there are still large areas of water here. Sitting along the edges, resting, are mallard ducks and lapwings, Canada, greylag and Egyptian geese, black-tailed godwits and seven avocets.

Avocets have bred at Pulborough for the first time on record this year – two pairs nested but only one pair was successful, fledging four birds. The elegant black and white waders recolonised Britain in the 1940s, but didn’t return to breed in Sussex until 1979. Since then, breeding numbers have risen from about 10 pairs 20 years ago to 100 or so across a handful of coastal sites, mainly around Rye Bay and Pagham and Chichester harbours.

An avocet seabird

Two of the avocets are now standing on one leg and preening. They sway their tall necks from one side to the other, using the mandibles of their long, black, upturned bills to coat their feathers and skin with the oily substance that they secrete from the uropygial gland. This keeps the feathers in good condition – if left untended they can become brittle and damaged – and, together with realigning the feathers to ensure the barbules remain interlocked, water-repellant. It is also thought the secretion may protect against microbes. The other avocets have woken up, and are also starting to preen. The black-tailed godwits wade into the brown water to feed, their reddish necks glowing in the low sun.

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