There are many reasons why birds disappear — and why they return. The avocet, however, is probably the only one that owes its resurgence to the Nazis.
After a 100-year hiatus in Britain, this elegant black and white wader reappeared after the second world war. Four pairs were found in Minsmere nature reserve and another four in Havergate Island, both along the Suffolk coast. These areas had been flooded to prevent a German invasion, making them ideal nesting grounds. The avocet had taken flight from parts of Holland damaged by the Nazis, travelling 100 miles or so here across the North Sea.
Amid headlines about the Cold War and the H-bomb, the news of returning avocets was greeted with much fanfare. In February 1948, the Daily Mail reported: ‘In a suite of old-fashioned offices… a group of men are anxiously waiting to hear of an air invasion of Britain. The news will come to them from watchers along the East Anglian coast, who are keeping as alert a look-out as they did in 1940 for the Germans. But this time, instead of looking for aircraft with black markings, they are hoping to see streamlined Recurvirostra avosetta, which have white, as well as black, markings. Unlike the Luftwaffe, these invaders will be most welcome.’
More than 70 years on, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds last month reported in excess of 400 avocets on the Minsmere reserve. It is a remarkable achievement — the arrival of 58 chicks was widely celebrated at the same site just six years ago. But the journey here has not been a smooth one.
After the avocets were discovered in 1947, the RSPB leased 1,500 acres of land from the Ogilvie family, who built the quirky nearby village of Thorpeness as a place for their friends and family to stay during the summer.