Friday, February 13, 2015

Northern Lapwing

Went for a brief but bracing walk with me old pal James this morning. This is the view from Southease bridge looking north up the Ouse river towards Lewes. The town is just visible to the right of the line of trees sloping down from the left had side. Just to the right of centre is Mount Caburn, site of a still very visible Iron Age hill fort. There is a dry valley behind which is absolutely awash with wild flowers in the spring, including more orchids than I've ever seen. 
On the walk down to the river from Rodmell we could see huge numbers of lapwing, Vanellus vanellus. I reckon there were more than a thousand altogether across the valley. They are one of my favourite birds: I love watching the flocks in flight. Think murmuration of starlings on steroids. They have white bellies which flash silver as they twist one way then the other. If you're standing within a few hundred metres you can hear the rush of air through their collective wings. The wings themselves look out of proportion with the rest of the body, giving rise to the, as it transpires erroneous, notion that 'flap-wing' might have been an original epithet.
In the season, or sometimes just when the desire seizes them, they perform their acrobatic courtship flights and emit their wonderful weird noises, including the "peewit" call that lends them one of their common names.

On the ground they are no less alluring with their cocky crests and irridescent green and purple mantles, black throats, faces and bills. 
We are lulled into a false sense of their success as a species by these large winter flocks as these are swelled with visitors from the continent; the UK population has plummeted by more than 80% in many areas. As a breeding bird it is in danger of becoming extinct in the south east. Yet this was a bird that has been associated with all types of agricultural land for more than 2000 years. 
Andreas Trepte, www.photo-natur.de

The small RSPB reserve at Lewes Brooks was purchased in the hope that they might maintain a toe-hold in the valley. I have been surveying the site for six years now and last year was the first time I ever saw a youngster fledge, although on average four pairs attempt to breed every season. There are simply too many predators: foxes, mink, crows, ravens, herring gulls and peregrines.
According to Mark Cocker they have more vernacular names than any other British species. These include green plover, pie-wipe, pee-wee, peasiewheep, toppyup, and in Shetland, tieve's nacket (meaning thieves' imp). In the seventeenth century prostitutes and deceitful women were known as 'plovers'. They are masters of deceit when it comes to protecting their nests and young, often feigning injury by dragging one wing along the ground and hopping away to distract predators. In fact the collective noun for lapwings is a 'deceit'.   
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