Meeting reports 2013

These are the reports of our Thursday evening meetings for 2013.  Many thanks to all the contributors. 

Thursday, 17th January: was cancelled due to adverse weather conditions.

Thursday 21st February:  Spitzbergen – Wildlife at the Top of the World by Dr. Kevin Elsby

report by David Knight

Spitzbergen is the largest and only permanently populated island of the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. The administrative centre and largest settlement is Longyearbyen where Dr. Kevin Elsby landed with his flight from Norway. It was founded on coal mining in 1906 by John Munroe Longyear and relics of the industry are still visible. This is where Kevin joined the ship to tour around the island. Longyearbyen is a rather bleak town dotted with multi-coloured houses ,shops,a supermarket and its own university. It was July – high summer- when the tour visited but the temperature was still near freezing. The town is surrounded by majestic mountain scenery with lots of snow,glaciers running into frozen seas and wonderful light. We were shown the many plants surviving in the few inches of unfrozen ground above the permafrost on the lower stretches like Polar Willows,Arctic Poppies, Hairy Lousewort and Cotton grass. There were birds such as Snow Buntings,Sanderlings,Skuas, Turnstones and Phalaropes all in the breeding plumages we don’t see in Norfolk. The shear cliffs hold huge colonies of Little Auks,Black Guillemots and the rarer Brunnich’s Guillemots. There is an impressive list of gulls. Kittiwakes, Blue Fulmars and predatory Glaucous Gulls which roamed the cliff faces snatching eggs and swallowing chicks and Kevin’s picture of the beautiful Ivory Gull in flight was almost translucent. It’s pure image,however, was somewhat tarnished when we learnt that,like the Glaucous Gull,it spends a great deal of the time following Polar Bears scavenging scraps. Arctic foxes scoured the cliffs looking for easy pickings. Bearded Seals peered at us and the endemic Reindeer with it’s huge feet wondered what everyone was looking at. Then we came close up and personal with a group of huge Walruses lounging on the sea edge quite unperturbed by the scores of cameras clicking away. Again wonderful pictures by Kevin.

Now the star of Svalbard – the Polar Bear. The one animal everyone comes to see. The largest land dwelling carnivore on the planet. Standing over 9 foot at the shoulder the big males are very dangerous. Amazing shots of this beast. For safety the majority of the pictures were taken from the inflatable zodiacs( with their two outboards constantly running) which ferry the parties from the mothership.

Kevin’s talk gave a great insight of life in the High Arctic with stunning photography and amusing anecdotes. Just what we have come to expect from him . We hope he will come back and see us soon.


Thursday 21st March:    European Songbird Migration by David Sadler

report by Liz Bridge

David Sadler joined us to speak about ‘Songbird Migration’. What a fascinating subject, and he only introduced us to the bare bones of it. Why do birds migrate? Food plays a central part. In the UK the cooling of temperatures in autumn means that active insect life decreases so warblers and others need to move south to more insect rich environments. As spring here approaches, food supply regenerates with insects etc again becoming plentiful so birds can return to their traditional breeding grounds. The hazards are plentiful: raptors already with young looking for food; hunters in the Mediterranean; weather. Some birds travel huge distances without stopping whilst others need to refuel on the way. How do we know where birds travel? Ringing is helpful but dependent on a bird being re-captured or found, probably dead. Now we have geolocaters so small and light that they can be fitted to the smallest birds. Some send information via satellite, others need to be recovered for the information to be downloaded. Historically our spring/summer birds were thought to do strange things in the winter: Redstarts were thought to change into Robins, Swallows thought to hide down in the mud of ponds. Radar changed our ideas as birds could be seen moving in flocks on the screen. So gradually more and more information enables us to know where birds go, what route they take (not necessarily the obvious one to us), distances travelled and how long it takes. As I said, a fascinating subject.


Thursday 18th April: AGM and Birding Arizona  by Allan Hale

report by Liz Bridge

At our April meeting and following our AGM one of our members, Allan Hale, talked to us about a trip he and wife, Heidi, made to Arizona and SE California. As ever, Allan is so enthusiastic about his trips and the birds he has seen. Some of the birds are really stunningly beautiful, particularly the Humming Birds; their colours are magnificent and almost fluorescent. One species of birds he saw was White Crowned Sparrow: many of us remember the one which put in at Cley a few years back. Condors have a 10’ wingspan and one was flying over his hotel. The American Robin is almost as big as our Blackbird but is rather different to our own Robin. We saw woodland birds, a Red-tailed Hawk which is like our Buzzard, Red-winged Blackbird. The water birds: a Black-necked Stilt which is rather similar to the Black-winged Stilt, a European bird, American Avocets which are similar to our own Avocets in shape. The Blackhead Grosbeak eats oranges, how strange: Turkeys, genuine wild birds, had a lek outside the bedroom window and were extremely noisy whilst doing so. The photo’s of the Grand Canyon were equally stunning, what landscape. The canyon is about 11-15 miles across but it is 215 miles to travel from one side to the other as it is so long. The red soil and rocks give a great panorama, but it is very dry there. Because of the depth of the canyon the temperature at the bottom is about 11oC higher than at the top. In the Saguaro National Park the Cactus Wren is bigger than our Greenfinch and there are impressively beautiful cacti. Portal, a small place near the Mexican border, has few inhabitants but they positively encourage birders, even inviting them into their gardens! Just inside California is the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. This place is 69 metre below sea level and is more salty than the Pacific. Unfortunately this means that only 2 species of fish are left now. We moan about windfarms in the UK but the Palm Springs Windfarm has 3200 turbines! Allan’s humorous commentary and anecdotes, together with great pictures always goes down well.


Thursday 16th May: Sutton Fen  

reporter Liz Bridge

Richard Mason, the Site Manager for RSPB Sutton Fen, joined us for our May meeting. Richard talked to us very enthusiastically, about the development of the site and the outlook for the future. To set the scene, he began by playing sounds of the birds using the site – Booming Bittern, Cetti’s Warbler, Sedge Warbler among others. The site was bought in late 2006 and is in the River Ant valley, about 15 km from Weston Longville as the crow flies. Sutton Fen is the most important RSPB site for‘all nature’. 12% of all species are rare or Red Book listed. The initial hours of study at the reserve to discover the detail of what species are present was very exciting. Some species were found in relative abundance and careful study of the habitat surrounding these  enabled management plans to be developed to maintain this.   Plant species – over 430 present, of which the Fen Orchid is the flagship, it is critically endangered and the site holds over half of  of the UK population. Invertebrates –1500 species recorded of which almost 300 are nationally rare or Red Book listed. The Fen Mason Wasp, a solitary wasp, is the flagship. Birds – over 80 breeding species with over 1000 individual nests. Excitingly a dozen Grasshopper Warbler territories have been recorded. Cranes are a priority species. Mammals – 2 Otter families, a herd of Red Deer, which are very important for grazing, water shrews and voles. The site is managed by two staff and a team of volunteers. Importantly all the work undertaken is assessed and monitored, and lessons learnt from it. Management of the site includes reed cutting, scrub removal, grazing and turf ponds which it is hoped will prevent the land from being vegetated. Water control and quality is very important with sluices controlling and monitoring the water coming in from the surrounding area. Richard has confirmed that we will be able  to visit the site in 2014 and arrangements will be made accordingly.


Summer Social Evening & BBQ

reporter – Mary Walker

Well, what a scintillating evening. The sun shone down as fifty members of WVBS descended on their HQ at Weston Longville, carefully carrying in an unbelievable array of buffet items. It seems members generosity knows no bounds as the tables groaned under the weight of enormous salads, cold pizzas and tantalizing desserts. Surely it couldn’t possibly all be eaten – it was !! accompanied by burgers and jumbo sausages expertly barbecued by David and Richard.
As we watched the sun go down and wondered if we could manage one more TINY dessert, Jacquie and Wendy recited their rendition of the members June trip to Northumberland. Based on a poem of Albert and The Lion, Lancashire accents were attempted and abandoned as laughter took over.
All too soon it was time to pack up and depart. Quickly and with military precision all evidence of our social evening vanished as the small army of WVBS members, washed up, stacked tables and swept floors. No-one would ever know such a lovely evening had just taken place, but for the lingering delicious smell of sausages in the air.
Many,many thanks for all the generous buffet donations, all the help numerous people gave, David and Richard for their excellent BBQ, and each and every WVBS member who made the evening such a huge success.


15th August: Working with Raptors

reporter Sue Gale

At our meeting on 15th August, we were lucky to have a talk by Nigel Middleton of the Hawk and Owl Trust. Nigel is based at Sculthorpe Moor Nature Reserve, and indeed is the man who invented that reserve ten years ago, and continues to manage and develop it. Because of this anniversary, he devoted the second half of his talk to the history and future of the reserve. He has big plans to create new waterways with new reed fringes, the most diverse parts of these reedbed systems, and has already secured some of the funding for this work.
Before the break Nigel talked about raptors, which are his special passion, and in particular about barn owls. We were horrified to hear about the numbers of barn owls killed on our roads each year. A Wiltshire study found over 3000 road deaths in 3 years, with most of the birds dying in their first year. The Hawk and Owl Trust (HOT) has launched Operation SWORD (Save Wild Owls from Road Deaths), and is keen to involve the public in reporting of these events. There are sound devices trialled in Sweden that can help to deter the owls from flying over the road when vehicles approach, but a hotspot needs to be identified for British trials to take place. If you find a dead owl at the roadside, please notify HOT at
There was better news of peregrines, the stars of Norwich Cathedral, where 31,000 people visited this year, and of marsh harriers, which are on the increase. Local wing tagging of young birds is enabling investigation of their dispersal and migration patterns, so if you see a marsh harrier with a green wing tag please report it to the above web address.
It is always a pleasure to listen to an inspirational person who has worked so hard over the years for the good of our local wildlife, and we are grateful to Nigel for a stimulating talk.

17th September:               Are Gardens good for Birds or Birdwatchers?

Reporter: Sue Gale

Mike Toms, of the British Trust for Ornithology, gave us an insight into the research carried out by that organisation on the life of garden birds. We learned how important our gardens are, however small, to the survival of the
species we have all grown familiar with. Added together our gardens cover a larger area than all the nature reserves in the country. Data collected from an army of over 14,000 volunteers, who report weekly on the sightings in their garden, has helped to establish a wealth of information. This project, the BTO Garden Birdwatch, is run by Mike and his small team, who handle millions of reports each year. We learned that there are patterns of behaviour that can be picked up from such a large dataset. So the lack of blackbirds in my garden, which I had only thought about, worriedly, that very morning, is entirely to be expected at this time of year. Perhaps we were not too surprised to learn that larger numbers of birds are reported from rural gardens than from urban ones, but the seasonal fluctuations in numbers follow the same pattern in each.

Even with such a huge dataset it is not always easy to interpret the results. Initially it appeared that feeding fat to birds in our gardens might be a bad idea, as research showed that after a winter of feeding on fat balls the average clutch size was smaller than for birds not fed on fat. Further examination, however, suggested that the lower average was due to larger numbers of birds surviving to breed when fat was fed, so that the less successful birds contributed to that average. So the total number of chicks would be greater, even though the average was less. What we don’t yet know is whether this sort of help contributes to the long term health of a species. Such issues make the importance of this sort of survey very obvious.

We were all very enthused by this talk, and very grateful to Mike Toms for a stimulating evening.

17th October: The Wildlife of the South Western USA

Reporters Su Gough and Colin Fenn

Su Gough, of the BTO took us on a photographic wildlife journey through the SW states of America. The bizarre juxtaposition of the ‘Statue of Liberty’, ‘Eiffel Tower’, ‘Venice’ and ‘The Pyramids’ can only mean one thing: Las Vegas, our starting point! Quickly escaping the city, via the desert and Mount Charleston, we were soon heading north and east towards Lake Mead and Hoover Dam. Lake Mead was very low, but wildlife abounded, including the Gambel’s Quail with its whacky topknot. Crossing the border into Arizona, the next stop was the familiar, but utterly spectacular Grand Canyon. Western Bluebirds and Ravens kept us company, although the highlight, at the Bright Angel Trailhead, was the sighting of the rarest bird of all: Californian Condor. Su’s photo was poor, so she had brought along a ‘cuddly condor’ to make sure we all knew what they looked like! Moving ever northwards, and higher (and colder!) we visited Bryce and Zion Canyons in Utah. Less well-known but each truly spectacular – especially the very ancient Bristlecone Pines at the very top of Bryce Canyon, in significant snow.
Back in the desert once more, heading south and west, via Roadrunners and and an uncharacteristically cold and damp (and flowerfilled) Death Valley, we finally crossed into California. Starting in the mountains, Sequoia National Park in the rain, our first close encounter was with an unexpected bear. This was followed by jaw-dropping moments when we finally came upon the Giant Sequoias, allaying any fears that we wouldn’t spot them amongst the other trees! Moving down again, we eventually hit the coast and the mighty Pacific Ocean, with its attendant Sea Otters and Elephant Seals. Following Route 1 up the Big Sur coast we reached Monterey Bay (and Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, the Aquarium and obligatory whale-watching trip). Here, we were treated to a cautionary tale of American portion sizes with a series of shots of a Brant’s Cormorant eating a huge fish before finishing our journey in San Francisco.

21st November:  The Wildlife of Minsmere by Alex Bass

reporter Ray Gribble

Many of the audience thought that they knew RSPB Minsmere well but Alex, maybe because he cycles around the area, showed us much of the surrounding area we were unfamiliar with.His talk was enhanced by an array of photographs of both the varied habitats in the region and the birds that are associated with each habitat. He even entertained us with a series of Percy Edwards style impressions of bird calls and songs.

Thursday 12th December : An Evening with Mark Cocker

 reporter  Sue  Gale                                                                            

 IMG_2013 Our tenth Anniversary celebrations      turned out to be a quite brilliant evening  The celebrated naturalist and wildlife author Mark Cocker lived up to his reputation and gave us an enthralling and engaging talk which brought together the themes of two of his best-known books – Crow Country and his new offering, Birds and People.  We learned about the position the corvids have held for centuries in many countries as the most hated of birds.  In Tudor times the killing of crows was compulsory, and in the eighteenth century they were believed to carry contagion.  Corvids, especially perhaps ravens, were associated with death.  But outside Europe many peoples had a very different view of this group of birds, and as an example we learned about some North American tribes where ravens were depicted as god-like but mischievous, and as the creators of landscapes and eventually of people.  Mark reminded us that corvids such as jays and nutcrackers play an important part in the dispersal of seeds (acorns etc) from our forests today.

In the second part of his talk Mark spoke of corvid roosts in Norfolk, and generated a great deal of interest and discussion among members about the roosting habits of these birds.  Following the talk several members have taken pains to locate the roost of corvids at Ringland that Mark mentioned.

Afterwards we enjoyed  canapés and wine, with the chance to socialise with each other and to ask further questions of Mark.  We ended the evening with an extensive raffle.




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