first avocet chicks hatch in Devon at Seaton Wetlands
Devon's first avocet chicks take to the water for the first time at East Devon's Seaton Wetlands. Image credit: Sue Smith

East Devon's Seaton Wetlands witnessed a triumphant breeding success, as two avocet chicks hatched yesterday, Monday 26th June. This marks the first occurrence of a newly-hatched family unit of avocets ever recorded in the county. 

In Spring, two avocets were seen foraging in the brackish lagoon of Black Hole Marsh on the Axe Estuary, before a pair were seen mating on the lagoon in late May, settling down to brood eggs on an island by the beginning of June.

East Devon District Council's Countryside Team has been keeping a very close watch on the nest site and the adult birds, both in person and remotely, while the eggs were incubated. With so many factors which could adversely affect a nesting attempt as important as this, all staff and volunteers at Seaton Wetlands were sworn to secrecy until the first avocet chick successfully hatched today!

Avocets are very conspicuous birds, with both males and females vividly marked with pied black and white plumage, long pale blue legs and a thin upturned bill. They chose to nest on an island with little vegetation cover. Both birds maintained a high state of vigilance to see off would-be predators, of which there are many on the Local Nature Reserve.

"With the female sitting tight on the eggs, the male would stand like a sentry on the northern tip of the island,

explained East Devon District Council’s Countryside Manager, James Chubb.

“Anything smaller than a Canada goose was seen off. We’ve a lot of crows here too and they weren’t even tolerated in the air above the nest.

"Whilst the Countryside Team could keep alert for intentional or reckless human disturbance, it was all down to the birds to protect themselves from natural predators. We kept the water levels on the lagoon as high as possible during incubation to provide protection from animals such as foxes or stoats.”

Cllr Paul Arnott, East Devon District Council’s Leader, said:

“This administration has been steadfast in its support for nature and its protection. We understand the importance of caring for wildlife and their natural homes, so we continue to invest in our treasured nature reserves around East Devon.

“We are absolutely delighted to see our efforts are paying off with the breeding of this iconic wetlands species, and would like to thank all the staff and volunteers across East Devon who have made this possible.”

Black Hole Marsh was created in 2008 with support from the Environment Agency as part of East Devon District Council’s ambitious Seaton Wetlands complex of nature reserves and setting out the District Council’s commitment to nature recovery at a very early stage.

Cllr Geoff Jung, East Devon District Council’s Portfolio Holder for Coast, Country and Environment, said:

“Strategic plans to attract avocets have long been in place. During that time, winter records of these birds have been regular in most years. Fifteen years on, it is now a magical sight to witness them breeding.

“Because the lagoon was entirely man-made, it was designed to provide excellent bird feeding opportunities whilst giving good views from the hides and vantage points, too. The assortment of islands with differing vegetation all point towards the central island hide accessed via a wooden causeway, surrounding you with birds when you are in this hide.”

Visitors are welcomed to visit Seaton Wetlands to see the avocets’ progress for themselves.

Key facts

The record of the oldest avocet identified through bird ringing was almost 25 years, but 6 is thought to be the normal. Breeding usually takes place in their second year and birds will often return to the same location if they have been successful in their first attempt.

Avocets feed on small shrimps or other invertebrates which they glean from the surface of the water or mud on estuaries or tidal lagoons. They use a sweeping motion of their unusual upturned bill to forage and in murky conditions, rely of the sensitive touch of that bill for successfully feeding.

Oystercatchers are another wader which breeds on the lagoon and 2023 saw a record five pairs raise broods, up 60% on 2022. It is hoped that with its ongoing commitment to manage and maintain the reserve, avocet breeding pairs will increase in the years ahead.