Wanderings of the Glossy Ibis


A pair of glossy ibises have built a nest at a RSPB site in Frampton Marsh, Lincolnshire. Whilst the pair have not produced any eggs, they have been seen courting and displaying which RSPB manager John Bradley believes “could be the behaviour of immature birds practising before they are mature enough to breed.”

The pair have been in residence at Frampton Marsh since June of this year, which was initially kept quiet until August for fear of illegal egg collectors.

The glossy ibis is an uncommon visitor to the UK, with around 20 sightings reported a year since 2009. It is the most widespread of all ibis species, having breeding populations in southern Europe (particularly the Southern Mediterranean and the Balkans), North America, Australia, Asia and Africa. The largest single group of ibises in the UK was a flock of twenty that visited Orkney in 1907, ten of which were shot. Throughout the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, recorded visitations from glossy ibises to the UK were quite frequent, but from 1950 onwards became less and less so. This was is in part due to drainage and disturbance of their habitat, which destroyed colonies in Spain, France and Austria.

Drier conditions in Europe, (particularly Spain, where a population of ibises was established in 1996 and ringed in 2006) are thought to be responsible for the renewed occurrences of ibis in the UK over the last seven years. The glossy ibis’ recent expansion in range in Europe, is reflected in it’s colonisation of America in the twentieth century. It was first detected in Florida in the 1800’s, but by the 1980’s had reached the West Coast.

And the glossy ibis is far from the only bird to have been pushed northwards to our shores in recent times. This year, two pairs of bee-eaters from Africa, successfully hatched eight chicks on the Isle of Wight. In 2011, a Siberian rubythroat was seen for two weeks in Shetland, despite being most common in East Asia, and in the same year an Iberian chiffchaff (usually a resident of Spain and Portugal) was seen for five weeks in Wentwood Forest, near Newport. In 2008, a flock of nineteen spoonbills (relative of the glossy ibis) were seen in Suffolk. The number of total bird species spotted in the UK during the 1990’s was 412, and now the number is over 440. Whilst dry conditions brought about by climate change certainly have a part to play in this influx of migratory visitors, it is also worth pointing out the increase of camera phones and higher quality photography equipment as a contributing factor, as it aids the verification process of rare and unusual birds.

Whilst in breeding plumage, the glossy ibis justifies it’s nomenclature* with burgundy iridescence on it’s upper body, and wings and scapula of sea-greens and bronze. For most of the year round however, the ibis is duller in colour.
David Attenborough recently described the glossy ibis as a ‘stout-looking curlew’, the name ‘black curlew’ which appears in Anglo-Saxon literature is possibly a reference to the ibis**. If this is true, then it could be that glossy ibises bred in early medieval England. The pair on Frampton Marshes, if they do breed, may not in fact be the first of their kind to do so.

*Though it’s Latin name, plegadis falcinellus derives not from it’s plumage but from it’s beak. From the Greek plegad-; scythe and falcicula; a sickle.
**The first verified record of the glossy ibis in the UK was in Berkshire in 1783.

Picture of Glossy Ibis is a derivative of Glossy Ibis photo by Agpov used under CC BY 3.0

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Ash Caton


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