Is the glossy ibis about to spread its wings to colonise the UK?

A range of climate factors are in alignment that could help the UK make wildlife history this spring and summer.

Extremely dry conditions in southern Iberia and a relatively higher mean winter temperature over the UK has encouraged large number of glossy ibis – a distant relative of storks and herons – to spend the winter here. It is thought possible that this could lead to the first nesting in the UK of a wetland bird that in Europe is found mainly in the Mediterranean.

A flock of glossy ibis spending the winter at the RSPB's Exminster Marshes reserve in Devon.

A group of glossy ibis in Devon this winter at the RSPB’s Exminster Marshes reserve in Devon. Picture: Stuart Webster.

Malcolm Ausden is an ecologist with the RSPB. He recently co-authored a paper on the prospects of the glossy ibis nesting for the first time in the UK. He said: “The glossy ibis is a bird which is largely found in extensive wetlands in warmer climes. It is one of the world’s most widespread birds, being found from southern and eastern Europe through central and southern Asia to Australia, across Africa and also in the Atlantic and Caribbean region of the Americas.

“In common with a number of wetland birds the glossy ibis has to be able to cope with occasional periods of drought and this strategy may force a shift to new locations should existing areas become unsuitable. In fact, the glossy ibis did make a leap across the Atlantic, colonising the warmer parts of the Americas from the 19th Century onwards. So this species has a proven track record of colonising new areas far from its traditional breeding grounds.

“Weather conditions in Spain were extremely dry last winter and this encouraged a large number of glossy ibises to disperse north to the UK where they encountered milder-than-average winter conditions. Glossy ibises are unable to survive prolonged periods of cold weather. We still have large numbers of glossy ibises across the UK and if they remain here they may well see the UK as a good place to nest.”

Grahame Madge is a climate spokesman for the Met Office, as well as being a keen birdwatcher. He said: “Within my lifetime I have seen notable changes in the UK’s birdlife with several species now nesting in the UK which were formerly extremely rare visitors. A few years ago it may have been deemed fanciful to think that a bird more associated with the Mediterranean could begin to nest in the UK. Over the last couple of decades little, cattle and great white egrets have all started to nest in the UK and now there is an indication that the glossy ibis may join the growing list. If it doesn’t happen this summer, then many believe it is surely only a matter of time.

“Although it is tempting to speculate about which species may arrive in the UK, many of our traditional species are losing out in, especially in southern England, as their ranges shift further north.”

Change in average winter temperature in the UK

The average winter temperature in the UK over the last 60 years has increased.

Dr Mark McCarthy is the head of the Met Office’s National Climate Information Centre. He said: “UK temperature has risen by close to 1C in the last 60 years as a consequence of global climate change. We see this across all seasons, and for the 30-year period between 1961-1990 the mean winter temperature was 3.3°C. By 1991 to 2020 the 30-year average winter temperature had risen to 4.1°C. One consequence of our changing climate is that it is already influencing the range of some of the flora and fauna that can make their home here.”

The mean temperature for the UK in Winter 2022 was 5.2°C, more than 1.0°C above the long-term average for the last 30 years.

The UK winter mean temperature has increased by more than 1.0C since the mid 1960s.

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