Avocets Recurvirostra avosetta on mud, Exminster Marshes RSPB reserve

Avocets reach record numbers

Avocets are a symbol of conservation success, which is why they’re on our logo.

Gregarious, graceful and grumpy!

By providing an ideal safe habitat for breeding, avocets are thriving. In 2015, a record-breaking 50 per cent of the UK’s once nearly-extinct avocets are nesting on RSPB reserves.

With their distinctive black and white pattern, sweeping up-turned bills, and long blue legs, these unusual-looking, but beautiful birds, are fascinating to watch. They provide a spectacular show while:

  • feeding as they sweep their bill from side to side through the water, 
  • flying in flocks with their aerial acrobatic moves,
  • during their elegant mating behaviour
  • while aggressively defending their territory. They’re known to love a good scrap!
 Avocet turning eggs in nest.

Breeding pairs

Avocets nest in loose colonies of around 150 pairs. They normally breed for the first time when they’re two years old, often at a different location from where they themselves were reared.

Avocets lay 3-4 eggs in May, incubating for 23-25 days. The young fly at 35-42 days, remaining with the family for a time. Between hatching and flying, they leave the nest and follow their parents around.

Having bred successfully they’ll return to the same site in subsequent years, so we’re hopeful the avocet colonies will continue to grow in size on our reserves. The couple only pair up for the duration of the breeding season and break up by the time winter flocks gather.

Avocet kneeling allowing chicks to find shelter under wing.

Avocet family video

Watch a breeding pair of avocets lead their chicks across a saltmarsh and fight off a rival for their chicks feeding ground

Watch a breeding pair of avocets lead their chicks across a saltmarsh and fight off a rival for their chicks feeding ground.

Avocet family video screenshot

Giving avocets a home

Much of the success of the avocet colonisation on RSPB reserves is down to the innovative habitat management techniques we’re using.  

At Cliffe Pools in Kent, we’ve created individual islands which avocets use as secure nesting sites, away from predators. And at Frampton Marsh in Lincolnshire, we’ve made small ‘nursery pools’ on wet grassland, which are ideal for chicks to feed on safely. 

All of our birds and wildlife need a home to survive, and we can all take steps to give nature a home in our gardens - from bees to butterflies, to hedgehogs and frogs. There are loads of amazing activities and fun things you can do to make nature feel welcome in your patch. 


Get your free pack with 20 easy ways to give nature a home

Cliffe Pools RSPB reserve,  January 2003,

Colonising RSPB reserves

In 1947, the coastal marshes of East Anglia were flooded to defend the country against potential invasion. This created the perfect breeding ground for avocets, and they returned to our shores after being extinct from the UK for more than 100 years. Since then, numbers have continued to grow across the UK.

Mike Clarke, Chief Executive says 'Since avocets colonised Minsmere, they’ve been crucial for the survival of many species, including bitterns and marsh harriers and under our care is home to a wealth of wildlife.'

2015 was a record-breaking breeding season on our reserves: 

  • Minsmere celebrated what was the best breeding season for avocets in almost 30 years, with 58 chicks being successfully reared.
  • 172 pairs bred on our Cliffe Pools reserve in Kent – one of the highest concentrations ever recorded in the UK.
  • At Middleton Lakes in Staffordshire, avocets were amongst many wader species to nest and breed for the first time in the county.
  • At Frampton Marsh reserve in Lincolnshire, the number of breeding pairs reached 81 compared to none in 2008.
  • At our Dee Estuary reserve in Cheshire, record numbers were recorded thanks to the efforts to improve an anti-predator fence last winter.
  • At Poole Harbour in Dorset, numbers have risen from 25 to almost 2,000 in just 30 years, now accounting for an astonishing 40 per cent of the UK wintering population, making it the most important British wintering site.

Perfect avocet homes

The avocet is an important bird in the history of RSPB and of wetland conservation.

It seems only fitting that in the last of our Springwatch 2015 Nature Minute videos we pay tribute to the bird that began it all for the RSPB at Minsmere.

Avocets have had a torrid time as breeding birds in the UK. Historic drainage of coastal wetlands and reclamation for agriculture and other human uses, together pressure from egg-collecting, meant that by the mid-19th century avocets were no longer able to breed in this country. This was the situation for more than 100 years until, in 1947, avocets returned to breed on the Suffolk Coast at Minsmere.

The thing that allowed them to do this was the deliberate flooding of the land next to the coast at the site during the war, which unintentionally created a perfect avocet breeding habitat.

The RSPB first got involved at Minsmere to protect the avocets from egg-collectors, and then worked to create the ‘scrape’- a shallow lagoon dotted around with islands- for the birds to breed on. In the years since the management of Minsmere’s various habitats for many different species has made the reserve the wonderful wildlife haven it is.

So, clearly, Minsmere, the RSPB, and Springwatch, owe a lot to this little black-and-white bird.

Perfect avocet homes screenshot