It had been a glorious May Bank Holiday with bright blue, cloudless skies and soaring temperatures. An extended weekend of hours in the paddling pool, ice creams and for us yes a little bit of ringing, with the welcome return of many warblers to our reed bed site. Topping it all off was the return of that iconic sound of summer to the endless blue above the houses of Thetford: the screaming call of swifts racing across the sky.
In the East, the glorious weather continued through the week so that by Wednesday despite the appearance of fluffy, cotton wool clouds now dotted across the blue it was still warm and sunny.
The wonderful afternoon sun found us sat in the car on a track running along a field margin. Ahead the dusty track ran straight, flanked on one side by a hedgerow now filling out with green and alive with birds singing. Down the track the distinctive loping gait and black tipped ears of a hare catches the attention before it disappears round a corner. To the right, beyond the hedgerow is a sea of yellow. The heads of the rape seed flowers waving gently in the breeze, rippling like waves on a calm sea. Along its margin, a thick strip of red campion adds a wonderful splash of pink to the yellow and green.
To the left of the track the field has recently been ploughed, with shades of brown adding an earthy, darker tone to the dominant greens of hedgerow and trees, and blue of the sky. Yet it is across this comparatively barren field that we scan with binoculars from the car. It is not long before we see what we are looking for. There standing upright and alert in the centre of the field is a stocky bird with longish legs. His long black wispy crest flicks up behind is black cap, which extends down over the face and neck, leading to a back that at first glance is simply black. Yet as the sun shines down we catch the iridescent greens and purple that actually make up the feathers of his back, contrasting with a pure white belly. He is a lapwing.
A shadow moves across the bare soil and the bird is instantly more alert. The jet-black carrion crow glides across the field and the lapwing is off, followed a second later by his mate, chasing and harassing the crow letting it know in no uncertain terms it is not welcome and should be off! Tumbling through the air with their distinctive round saucepan shaped wings, they dive bomb the crow calling out with that call that sounds like it belongs in a computer game or an over enthusiastic user of an electronic synthesizer. The origin of the other name for the lapwing now comes clear – the peewit.
Their behaviour is a give away that perhaps this pair have a precious cargo to protect down amongst the soil and stones. The fact that the female joined in the harassment suggested that the due date for her little brood had passed. When the birds returned to earth we watched for the female, she looks the same as her mate but perhaps just a little less smart as the black is more speckled and she has a shorter crest. We watched patiently and sure enough two tiny fuzzy chicks popped up from among the divets and holes of the ploughed field. Unlike song birds, waders like lapwings lay their eggs in a scrape on bare ground. The chicks are ‘precocial’, which means they covered in fuzzy down and mobile from the moment of hatching. This also means parents will often move their chicks considerable distances from where they hatch to suitable feeding grounds. They are not naked and blind, restricted to a nest until feathers grow and eyes open, like their altricial counterparts.
We watched the two fuzzy bundles on their gangly legs making their way after mum, traversing the uneven ground, before making our move. Their instant response while mum and dad head off to harass any predator is to freeze, crouch and hold still, instantly disappearing as they use their speckled plumage to help camouflage them against the ground. The trick is to keep your eye on the spot where you last saw them. And sure enough, after making a quick dash across the field, Lee returned with two very adorable little chicks cuddled up in his hands.
It takes no time at all to pop a ring on, despite being only a few days old their well-developed legs means we can put a ring on at this young stage. Once completed we returned the two to roughly the same spot in the field and retreated. From our distant vantage point we watched as mum returned to the spot and two little heads reappeared and rushed to meet her. We leave mum brooding the two chicks, who are still not quite able to regulate their body temperature, under her body and wings. The male lapwing continued his vigilant stance a short distance away.
And so two new additions to the breeding population of lapwing also become two new additions to the ringing database for this species. Lapwing are unfortunately listed on the Red List for Conservation Concern in the UK with serious declines initially from large scale egg collections and then, more recently by dramatic changes in farming practices. Research indicates that chick mortality is a key factor in this decline, with the loss of breeding and feeding habitat one of the main drivers. By having a uniquely numbered ring on them marks these two as known individuals and will contribute to continuing our understanding of chick survival, the factors driving declines and what we can do to prevent them.
Ultimately taking the time to ring these chicks is just one step in the fight to save such enigmatic and characteristic species, so that future generations will be able to enjoy the peewit across our countryside.