In the 1970s, when undertaking research on Starlings with the then Ministry of Agriculture, most of my winter fieldwork took place near Winchester in Hampshire. During this period of my life I became familiar with the stretch of the River Itchen between New Alresford and Kings Worthy and liked, in particular, the river as it flowed with through Ovington, passing by the lovely Bush Inn where I sometimes took friends and assistants for a pub lunch. The clear waters of this stretch revealed lush aquatic vegetation and an abundance of trout, swimming energetically to simply maintain their position in the fast current. Little Grebes were vociferous and an occasional blue streak revealed the fleeting presence of a Kingfisher. The water meadows were popular with Rooks, and also with my study species, Starlings, which probed the moist grassland in their search for nutritious grubs.
Autumn 2016 seems to me to have been exceptional in the intensity of colours in preparation for the shedding of leaves by deciduous trees, with mixed woodland along road sides displaying a heady mixture of rich yellows, golds, oranges, reds and browns to contrast with the greens remaining from the summer or on conifers. On a very sunny 31 October I took Christine to drive and walk various stretches of this part of the Itchen valley. Our enjoyment of the leafy display was endless but the seasonal changes responsible were augmented by evidence of some longer-term changes in our countryside.
We first stopped at a watercress farm/farm shop on the Alresford-Kings Worthy road (and left with a yummy cider cake!). Sitting and preening in the top of an Ash tree that overhung the watercress beds was a Little Egret – never seen during my 1970s studies. Then, hearing a commotion among a flock of Jackdaws, we looked up to see a Red Kite circling – another bird that was absent in the 1970s. Subsequently, we saw two more Red Kites along the valley and more Little Egrets along the river and at watercress farms that we passed. We ended our day in Alresford and walked to Alresford Pond. In addition to the many gulls, ducks, swans and coots, we found seven Little Egrets roosting in trees on the lake margin.
As elsewhere in southern England, Little Egrets have clearly recolonised following their extinction from the UK in the 19th century. Their final demise was due to the killing of huge numbers for the millinery trade, a practice that ultimately led to the formation of the RSPB. This organisation has also been instrumental in the re-establishment of Red Kites in Britain, following their disappearance from most of the country due to illegal poisoning, egg collecting and possibly improved hygiene in towns and cities. The re-establishment of Red Kites, however, involved the deliberate introduction of birds taken from breeding areas mainly in Sweden and Spain. There have been no introductions in the Hampshire area, however, and the birds we saw might have been wandering youngsters or migrants from breeding areas elsewhere.
Changes in bird populations are not always positive, however, and one species was notably absent from our day’s tally – the subject of my 1970s research, on account of its huge numbers and damage to agriculture and other human interests, the Starling was nowhere to be seen. Its population has crashed in the UK and in much of north-west Europe, most likely as a result of changes in farming practices.