Birdwatchers' icon breeds for the first time in London

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The Independent Online

It is London's latest attraction: the icon of British birdwatching, the avocet.

The stunning black-and-white wader has long been the symbol of the million-member Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, because it was on RSPB land in Suffolk that it returned to nest in Britain 60 years ago after an absence of more than a century.

It has gradually built up its numbers since then, mainly around the coastlines of East Anglia and Kent. But now a pair of avocets have set up home for the first time in the capital, and are nesting at the Wetland Centre in Barnes, SW13 - a mere four miles from Charing Cross, two miles from Notting Hill, and within sight of the floodlights of Fulham FC's ground, Craven Cottage.

With their delicate upturned bills and exquisite plumage, the birds have been drawing gasps of admiration from delighted onlookers at the nature reserve run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, not least because they hatched four chicks on 17 June.

As of yesterday afternoon, the parent birds had managed to keep all of them safe from predators such as herons, foxes and crows. This is quite an achievement as other wader species on the reserve, such as lapwings and little ringed plovers, have seen many of their chicks killed by predators this summer, with herons the principal culprits (which may surprise anyone who thinks that herons just eat fish and the occasional frog.)

The avocets, however, are among the most combative of all wading species, defending their brood aggressively, and could be seen attacking approaching herons and crows head-on yesterday, while giving loud alarm calls - enough to drive the predators off.

The four chicks are growing fatter - they now look like avocet fluffy toys - and they are already past the stage where they can be harmed by bad weather. If they can stay safe for another three weeks or so they will fly, and may subsequently form the nucleus of an avocet colony at Barnes.

So, at least, hopes John Arbon, the Wetland Centre grounds manager. "There's no reason why it shouldn't happen, if all the chicks fledge normally, because avocets tend to nest in big colonies, and defend themselves by numbers," he said. "This could be the start of a colony here. We could easily end up with more." The birds nested on a shingle island right in front of the centre's main observation gallery, but moved the chicks a quarter of a mile, when they were two days' old, to another lagoon.

They can be observed there from one of two public hides, imitating their parents in swishing their upturned bills from side to side through the water, filtering out invertebrates for food.

They are the undoubted star turn at Barnes this summer, but the 100-acre reserve, converted from four concrete reservoirs at a cost of £16m, has become a honeypot for an increasing number of attractive bird species since it opened in 2000- waders and wildfowl especially.

Bitterns, the elusive relatives of herons which are among the rarest birds in the UK, have visited for the last two winters. And something even more remarkable may be on the way to London. The reserve now hosts about 70 pairs of reed warblers, one of the bird species in whose nests cuckoos regularly lay their eggs.

This spring a cuckoo was heard calling at the Wetland Centre for the first time, and it is possible, thinks Mr Arbon, that London cuckoos may soon be joining the avocets as one of the capital's most surprising and attractive birds.

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