Meeting Reports 2014

These are the reports of our Thursday evening meetings for 2014.  Many thanks to all the contributors.

Thursday 16th January: Wars and Wildlife by Richard Porter

A report by Martin Spriggs

This packed meeting enjoyed a talk from an expert in the Middle East, covering an enormous area but with recurring problems for wildlife. Richard Porter now lives in North Norfolk that is when he is in this country. As a young man he was located in London but soon deviated to Sussex University to study Ecology, a fairly new idea in the 1960`s. Having achieved a degree came the question `What to do with it`? About this time air travel became more common, so putting off the answer, a trip to see the world was obvious. With friends he visited Turkey—and stayed a year! Impressed by the huge numbers of raptors using thermals over the mountains to reach the land crossing of the Bosporus on migration, they carried out the first survey of the species and numbers. This hooked Richard and he is now, after 48years, an expert on Yemen, Iraq and the Red Sea areas both in Ecology and in Birdlife and is an adviser for the bird organisations in these countries. Training for the new upsurge of local scientists is arranged and school programmes organised.

We were taken to his favourite island, a small 120/40 km dot off the coast of Yemen, Socotra. Isolated until recently when an airport has been constructed, it has been accorded World Heritage Status. With its famous forests of Dragons Blood Trees, the island has the current largest numbers of Egyptian Vulture, a bird that recently has been in severe decline elsewhere, with up to 1900 individuals. Very tame they will walk on the picnic tables as chaffinches do in Europe. Richard and his team were responsible for proving that the local common Socotra Buzzard is a separate species, although it has been known as a Buzzard now for 120years! It is, in fact the newest `discovered and named `bird. With poor transport the island is very backward with some tribesmen still living in caves. Richard has noted that most vagrants to this island originate in the Indian Subcontinent far across the Arabian Sea.

The whole of the eastern coastline of the Red Sea is excellent for both fish and therefore birds. As yet the heavy factory fishing fleets have not ventured into this area. All fishing is still local and even the cats know when the boats are due back, congregating for offal on the shoreline! There are huge colonies of Arabian Cormorants, up to 250,000 strong but as Richard pointed out it only takes an Oil Spill in this oil area to wipe them out. A strange bird in this neck of the woods is the Crab Plover, looking like a thick, short billed Avocet, it nests in burrows.

The Yemen has three areas, the eastern plains (dry and desert), central agricultural land and to the west bordering the Red Sea, mountains. Leopards are still found here with 820 bird species of which 60 are endemic and 39 are globally threatened. The Slender-billed Curlew will soon be extinct as it is still shot by tribesmen on its long migration. Work is being carried out to protect the migration routes and to educate the population on choosing the more common targets. The Bald Ibis now only nests in Syria and due to the ongoing war is in a parlous state. There is, however a stable breeding group in Morocco. The Yemen has only just become free of the long ruling dictator and is now playing catch-up in ecology and wildlife protection, lead in many cases by the schools. In the whole areas the main threats are habitat deforestation, overgrazing and hunting. Indiscriminate hunting is the worse in the world in Syria and Lebanon.

In Iraq during the Gulf War over 200km of pristine coastline was flooded with oil and is still recovering. The huge oil fires lit carried smoke as far as Moscow and parts of the desert looked like lakes, attracting millions of insects who drowned in the oil. In the Himalayas acid rain was recorded. The Iraq marshes, twice the size of Norfolk were drained and became desolate, baked mud deserts. These have now been reflooded and within 1year new reed growth began from the seed and rhizome bed. Birds and wildlife have returned and there are now 3,000Basra Reed Warblers present. Reed cutting, the main occupation has begun again. This is sold at market for building projects as all the local houses are of bundles of reed, some large meeting halls of exquisite design. In spring of 2013 Water Buffalo were back but Richard is concerned that in some areas electric fishing is used. He feels that this needs to be controlled in some way along with Vegetation destruction and Hunting, especially of rare ducks. Interestingly there is only one published guide to the birds of Iraq but Richard is more hopeful now that young Arabs are showing so much interest in their wildlife and birds.

David Gibbon gave the vote of thanks, pointing out how Richard’s talk had taken us through the region with insight into both the wildlife and the people of the region and into the future plans.   


Thursday 20th February – Wildlife through the Seasons in Scandinavia         

A report by Sue Gale

We listened to a wonderfully varied talk by Julia Burton on Feb 20th, entitled ‘Wildlife through the seasons in Scandinavia’.  It managed to include a short geography lesson, and some insights into the cultures of Norway, Sweden and Finland, as well as lots of information about the flora and fauna of these countries.  It was illustrated with Julia’s beautiful photographs, of the spectacular scenery as well as of the wildlife. We enjoyed learning about the Sami people, who farm reindeer, and about the trees that grow in the north of Sweden from root stocks that are 9500 years old. 

Julia had seen and photographed many of the 11 species of owl to be seen in Scandinavia, and we were especially impressed by the pictures of the great grey owl.  It is an iconic species that looks almost too good to be real, as indeed did the brown bear photographed from a hide in the Swedish forest.  The bear looked like something you took to bed with you, rather than a seriously dangerous animal.

At Lake Hornborga in March she had witnessed the spectacle of 18000 or so cranes, dancing their courtship dances, and heard the eerie calls of black-throated divers.  Over in the Dovre mountains of Norway the star species was the shaggy musk ox, which had been reintroduced and is doing well.  These mountains also boasted breeding arctic foxes. 

The last location we heard about seemed to be one of Julia’s favourites, the Lofoten Islands.   And the scenery alone left many of us wanting to travel there. Here, besides a wonderful list of sea birds, she had encountered the sperm whale, whose head makes up one third of its enormous body!  This is because it contains 2000 litres of oil, which assist its echo-navigation.  This is also the whale that secretes the expensive perfume base, ambergris, although it does so to coat the horny beak of the squid it eats, rather than to enhance its smell.

I am quite sure that everyone who attended this talk enjoyed it enormously, and also that we all learned something new.


Thursday 20th March- Birds,Birders and the work of the BTO

reporter Keith Walker

 We listened to a highly informative and amusing talk by Paul Stancliffe on March 20th   about some of the work of the BTO, particularly in the field of monitoring bird migration and bird population numbers, as well as some amusing anecdotes about incidents in his role as media manager.

 We were first shown some alarming statistics about the dramatic decline in the numbers of some migrants and then the talk was developed on the lines of how monitoring is getting more sophisticated and that with advances in technology, so many new facts are coming to light which will enable the BTO to provide advice on why numbers have declined in various species.

 Historically we have seen the use of ringing which costs pence but return information was very spasmodic, and in respect of Africa non existent. In recent years a GPS device had been attached to birds and whilst information provided is dramatically improved there are still downsides in the birds have to be re-caught to enable information to be extracted from the device. The latest development is the attaching of a satellite device weighing 5 grams which will transmit much more data, but the downside here at the moment is the cost of £2500 per unit together with the internet monitoring costs of £60 per month, and the weight which is only suitable for larger birds pending new technology evolving. It is expected that  new units weighing c2 grams will be available in the near future.

The BTO uses a mix of these devices and is also developing a ringing programme by training ringers on the African sub-continent.

 We were then provided with details of how the satellite devices being used with details of Cuckoo numbers in the UK which showed a fall in numbers in England, and increase in numbers in Scotland.

 Thirty-five male cuckoos from various places in the UK have had satellites attached after being lured into nets following a passionate tryst with Clarice the imitation female. This has shown for the first time that the birds head for the rain forests of the Congo and whilst the individual birds flightpath is very consistent, that birds from Southern England take a totally different route and the loss of birds is much greater. (Probably due to drought conditions  in Spain and a more difficult flight path over the Sahara). The information provided is available live on the BTO website  We were also encouraged by Paul to use the BTO software application Birdtrack which is free and available for PCs and mobile phones and were shown what the collated information was used for as well as the record keeping facility.

The Garden Birdwatch scheme was also promoted and members encouraged to join. Here a fee of £17 per year is payable.

 From the laughter and generous applause heard, I am quite sure that everyone who attended this talk enjoyed it enormously, and also that we all learned a lot of fascinating new information .

 Letter of Appreciation on this talk from Brenda Palmer

John and I have to say what an enjoyable, entertaining and informative evening we had on 20 March when Paul Stancliffe gave his talk. We often find that talks are way out of our region because they deal with places we shall never visit or are too technical for our small brains! Paul dealt with a topic close to everyone’s heart; the mysterious decline of the cuckoo and the efforts to discover why these iconic birds are becoming so rare. We are sure that his revelations for tracking them on Google will have been investigated by all interested parties. Such a costly enterprise deserves to bring results and we can only hope that the tracking systems will eventually reveal information which will help to unravel the mystery of what is happening to the cuckoos on their extensive travels. We were mentally prepared for an evening of graphs and statistics, so our enjoyment of the evening was doubled because we were treated to a light-hearted and articulate speaker who certainly “knew his stuff”. We’d be very happy to be subjected to more of the same.


Thursday 17th April – AGM followed by Cuban Bus Pass Boys – A talk by Allan Hale

reporter Sue Gale

As usual business was short, and the committee was reappointed without competition. We rapidly moved on to the entertaining part of the evening. Allan Hale regaled us with the adventures of the Bus Pass Boys in Cuba. There are seven of them, and we assume that they can see well enough, but we learned that their hearing leaves much to be desired. They certainly take great photos.

They toured Cuba in a splendid bus with a succession of local guides to help them find the interesting birds. Perhaps not the greatest start to the tour when they arrived at a hotel that wasn’t expecting them! The lucky man who’s turn it was to have a room to himself that night had to make do with the garden shed. I think accommodation improved from then on. At least there was the consolation of a bottle of wine in each room, and later in the tour, a bottle of rum. I’m surprised they managed all those early starts.

The Bus Pass Boys, all experienced birders, were not too impressed with some of the guides, or indeed with some of their methods, but they did OK, because of the 28 birds found only in Cuba they managed to see 26. We were treated to excellent views of many unfamiliar birds, including grassquits, kingbirds, the grackle with its sideways tail, and many lovely woodpeckers. These last always obligingly posed looking out of their nest holes, for perfect photo shots. There were also many American warblers, so much more colourful than most of ours, passing through on migration. Sadly, though, some of the Cuban birds are suffering population decline, mainly because of their popularity as caged birds. Some of my favourite shots were of the splendid owls, seen mostly in the Zapata swamps.

The Boys did manage some non-birdy sightseeing on the tour, including a day in Havana, and they were most impressed with the splendid old American cars that are a characteristic of the city. It seems that most of them serve as taxis. What a way to travel. It was noticeable that traffic was very light on most of the roads, unless you counted the pony traps and pedestrians.

The last few days of the tour saw our intrepid explorers hit the tourist spots, staying in a lovely hotel at Playa Coco. These islands off the North coast are reached by a long causeway, and provided pelicans aplenty as well as beautiful clear seas. Sounded like a great trip, and we look forward to hearing about Sri Lanka next!

Thursday 15th May – Butterflies in Norfolk by Alan Dawson

reporter Sue Gale

We were pleased to welcome Alan Dawson to tell us about Norfolk butterflies, a seasonally appropriate change from our usual focus on birds.

Of the 59 species of breeding butterfly recognised nationally we have 36 in Norfolk. 14 have never been seen in the county, but we have lost 9 species in the last 100 years, including the large copper, purple emperor and most of the fritillaries. (Of course we are also lucky enough to be the only county where the swallowtail is found.) Loss of habitat has been the most important factor in these losses, and remains a problem except on natures reserves, SSSIs etc.
Careful recording of presence and abundance of butterflies allows organisations such as Butterfly Conservation to plot trends, and we learned that not all of these are downward. For example, the holly blue, once scarce, is now a common sight, and the white admiral is much more widespread. Silver washed fritillaries have reappeared in places like Holt Country Park and Foxley Wood.
Some butterflies have modified their behaviour in the face of loss of habitat, like the white letter hairstreak. This used to live at the top of tall elms, but since we lost so many of these trees they have adapted to a lower lifestyle using suckered elms.note that they do still require elms however. Indeed the very special needs of many butterflies in relation to food plants and life cycle an obviously lead to problems. The silver studded blue, for example, needs not only heather as a food plant, but also a particular species of ant to take care of its caterpillars!
SometImes there are pleasant surprises and unexplained successes, such as the reappearance of the chalk hill blue at Warham Camp in 2007. Was this perhaps an unofficial reintroduction? Numbers have increased steadily since then to over 7000 counted in 2013. There are nonetheless still potential problems of isolation and inbreeding on such a small site.
In spite of such improvements there are 10 red-listed butterflies in Norfolk, like dingy and grizzled skippers and the silver studded blue. We can help with their conservation by supporting the wildlife organisations, but also in our gardens. We can make sure there are nectar plants such as the good old buddleia available, and ensure that there are food plants for caterpillars. The orange tip caterpillars appreciate garlic mustard, and several species can use a few nettles. So the message is – don’t be too tidy an your gardens and leave some weeds!


Thursday 17th July – Farming & Conservation – A Farmer’s Perspective

reporter Mary Walker

We welcomed WVBS member Charles Sayer to talk to us about Sparham Hall Farms, from a farmers perspective.
The farm was bought by his grandfather in 1902 from Lord Leicester of the Holkham estate and it is built of Holkham brick. The land was farmed hard by his grandfather and father, before Charles took it on. Wildlife thrived and there were passerines everywhere and even Corncrakes were present. Always a champion to the environment, Charles started “listing” as a small boy. In 1957 he won a school prize for identifying wild flowers, and in 1965 found 63 song thrush nests.
Nowadays Charles has found many ways of making his farm friendly to a wide range of birds, butterflies and moths. He explained how the Government and Natural England funded the planting of bird seed, building wooden fences,styles and gates, opening permissive paths and even erecting bird boxes.
Charles has created a wonderful “old fashioned” farm with sprawling hedgerows full of berries, wild field margins, crops of Fodder Radish, and Millet are grown, and a few dead trees are left for woodpeckers and insects.

A very interesting talk from a dedicated environmentalist.

 Thursday 21st August – Summer Social

reporter – Mary Walker

The clouds were gathering, rain threatened, but thankfully held off as 40 WVBS members gathered for our annual Summer Social & BBQ. The hardier souls showed true British spirit and braved the elements, the rest positioned themselves inside, close to the groaning buffet table. Richard & Keith did a magnificent job cooking a mountain of burgers & sausages in the rapidly fading light.

Many thanks to Alec & Alice once again for the loan of the 2 BBQ’s and an awning, and of course grateful thanks to each and every member who contributed in so many ways. A delightful evening was had by all

Thursday 18th September – Wildlife of the Maasai Mara – A talk by David Pelling

reporter Liz Gibson

By means of a photographic show and commentary, David transported us from Weston Longville Village Hall to The Maasai Mara National Reserve in South Western Kenya. His Photographic Safari was arranged by the travel company Exodus and guided by their resident photographer Paul Goldstein.
After a 50 minute flight from Nairobi and a ‘not for the faint-hearted’ drive in long wheel-based Land Rovers, the group arrived at The Kicheche Migration Camp, a luxury tented camp adjacent to the Mara River. The tents had en suite facilities with flush toilets and hot showers. Camp Rules: Always Zip your Tent up and No Wandering at Night!
David admitted that his primary reason for going was to see and shoot (in photographic mode!) big cats, in particular, Cheetah. And, of course, to spot a variety of birds and to witness the annual migration of Wildebeest – a spectacle that most of us have only seen courtesy of BBC Wildlife documentaries. The Wildebeest, often up to eighty thousand, wait for the herds of Zebra to enter the river first unfortunately encountering the waiting crocodiles.
Each morning at 5am, and fuelled only by coffee and biscuits, the small group set off through the open and gently rolling terrain. Their drivers, Jackson, Amos and Benjamin were experienced local Maasai guides. Following the early start the group would return to camp around 10.30am for breakfast and rest before lunching at 2pm and setting off again around 4pm. Dinner and in bed by 9pm – sounds like heaven to me.
It soon became obvious to David that Paul wasn’t primarily a ‘bird man’ and after requesting the driver to stop so he could photograph Black Headed and Black-Eyed Bulbul; White Browed Robin Chat; Purple Grenadier; a Red-Headed Weaver collecting nesting material; an African Darter (which actually spears fish with its bill;, African Pied Wagtail; Three Banded Plover; African Fish Eagle; Grey, Pied, Malachite Kingfisher and the insectivorous Brown Hooded Kingfisher, Paul declared to David in colourful language his preference for photographing game! Despite this David dug his bush boot heels in and a truce agreed.
One big tick for David when the group spotted a female Cheetah and her two cubs drinking and playing at a water hole. The cubs grow a mane/mantle which helps to deter predators by making them resemble Honey Badgers – a particularly ferocious animal.
We were entertained by various stories: the Cape Turtle Dove with its distinctive call “work harder” which according to one Kruger guide becomes “drink lager” towards sundown; the African Buffalo – reputedly the most dangerous animal – which charges without stopping; the missed ‘Lilac Breasted Roller in flight shot’ because Paul instructed the driver to “Go, Go, Go”!; a previous trip when a hot water bottle was stabbed after being mistaken for a dangerous animal! etc. etc.
Other photographic highlights included the Secretary Bird which agitates the grass to disturb snakes; Long Billed Pipit (identification finally confirmed after consulting several books); Wart Hogs with their stripey youngsters; the slightly darker Kenyan/Masai Giraffe; Elephants against a rainy sky; a pride of Marsh Lions after a kill; a camouflaged Leopard; 5 foot tall Saddle-Billed Stork and the aptly named Hammerkop.
My particular favourites were the early evening images of a Serval, a medium-sized cat with a delicate head and large white-tipped ears. And in this same early evening light before the sun sets, known as the “Golden Hour”, some truly amazing shots of a female Cheetah with four cubs sniffing around the vehicles.
I could, of course, mention so many more incredible photographs and stories. However, David told us that his closing image of a breathtaking African sunset brought tears to his eyes and his only regret was that Daphne hadn’t been there to share it with him.
Thank you David for a wonderful evening and I’m sure we’re all looking forward to more tales from your ‘Big Cat Diary’.

Thursday 16th October – Birds of New Zealand by Bill Shepherd

 reporter Sue Gale

Bill is lucky enough to be a regular visitor to New Zealand, staying in Whakatane in the appropriately named Bay of Plenty. He explained that New Zealand has no indigenous mammals at all, only those that have been imported. Of those, the most common are the most unpopular, being rats and possums. In particular there is a huge population of possums, the females of which are always pregnant! They threaten the survival of the few remaining cowrie trees by overeating, adding to the problems caused by settlers who cut down large numbers of these vast trees for fuel, building etc.
There are also quite a lot of imported birds, from Europe and from Australia, but there are New Zealand specialities as well, and Bill enjoys watching these on the veranda in Whakatane with his bins, camera and a gin and tonic. Only way to birdwatch he says! But he has done a lot of the more usual type of birdwatching, and he entertained us with some beautiful images and a fund of stories garnered over nearly 10 years of visits.
Bill’s friend, Ann, lives right next to a reserve, and they heard news of a kiwi, reared in captivity, being released on to this reserve. When they arrived to watch they were the only visitors, and hearing how far Bill had travelled the warden offered him the chance to hold the kiwi. The normally nervous bird not only settled on Bill’s lap, it went to sleep! This male kiwi carried a transmitter tag, something only given to male kiwis. The females lay enormous eggs and then have done with the whole business, leaving the males to incubate the eggs and rear the young. As well as this information, I was very surprised to find how small the kiwi is. Nothing like the size of an emu.
Bill encountered many endangered and rare species, including the grey duck, which is shot for sport; the New Zealand dotterel, which nests on a beach frequented by motor-bike riders, presenting some unusual conservation measures; and the wrybill, with its sideways bent bill, which can only be found in three places in the country, but when found is in large flocks. He saw 2000 of these lift up at the approach of a NZ falcon. He was cross – he watched the flock and missed the falcon, but personally I think he did the right thing. Other birds we saw included the tui, grey warbler, sacred kingfisher, kelp gull, shiny cuckoo, the NZ stitchbird, NZ fernbird and lots more I can’t spell.
Bill got around during all these visits. The two islands in the Bay of Plenty, were Whale Island, home to 30,000 pairs of sooty shearwaters, traditionally caught for meat by the Maori owners, and White Island, which is an active volcano. Unsurprisingly there doesn’t seem to be a lot of bird life here, but Bill has walked around the base of the crater, wearing the obligatory gas mask. In Rotorua the hot springs provide free cooking facilities for the locals, who lower food into the ground. Here Bill went on an extensive search for the rare blue duck, and eventually saw not only the ducks, but also made up for his previously missed view of NZ falcon, this time truly wild.
On the (very old) ferry to S Island, Bill saw the very rare king shag, as well as shearwaters, petrels and penguins. Once arrived he went to Dunedin for the Southern albatross. Here again time for viewing was severely limited, but this is the only breeding colony on the mainland. Even further South, on Stuart Island, were the S Island robin, the Stuart Island shag and the rarest of all the birds, the black robin. The population of the charming little bird was reduced to 9 a while ago, but by moving some to a rat-free island conservationists have increased its number to almost 300. Bill was less impressed with the conservation centre where he hoped to see the black stilts they raise there for later release. After paying a considerable amount for the privilege he was shown a video, with no opportunity to see the birds themselves. Luckily a sympathetic local warden later showed him where to find some wild black stilts, although obviously sworn to secrecy so he could only provide a map with a pencil cross marking the spot.
We were presented with stunning photos of shearwaters and albatrosses, including the southern royal albatross, which is the largest and most timid, and we ended on a high note with a video of a humpbacked whale and calf.

Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the evening, which was enlivened by Bill’s talent for recounting the funny as well as the spectacular aspects of his travels. Many thanks to Bill and we hope to hear from him again soon.


Thursday 20th November – Wild Breckland by David Mason

reporter Sue Gale

It was a surprise to learn that England’s only desert, the 400 square miles of Breckland, contains so many fascinating creatures, and a great treat to see them presented in the form of David’s beautiful photographs. A short account of the history of the area, and how that had shaped the current landscape was a fascinating introduction. We learned that the harder flints were found deeper underground, leading to the digging of Grimes Graves. Rabbits were a big influence! They reduced the vegetation by eating everything down to a very short level, and were numbered in the hundreds of thousands. They were a useful resource, minded by ‘warreners’, and there were severe penalties for what we would call poaching. By 1921 over 500 people worked on rabbit skin processing, the fur being used for clothing and the skins for glue! Shooting also had a big influence on the landscape, as the big estates managed it for game, and then the Forestry Commission planted millions of pines. Today the forest and the heaths are largely accessible for recreation, although the ‘battle area’ is still off limits to most.
David, who knows the area in intimate detail, took us through the seasons with a series of beautiful images, interspersed with the odd anecdote and some titbits of information that underlined the depth of his knowledge. That long acquaintance with the area means that David is very aware of the ebb and flow of fortunes of many species. Some are in serious decline as nesting birds, like the hawfinch and the turtle dove, but the redstart is still hanging on, and David even has hopes that maybe we will see bustards on the heathland again in the future. Some species are recovering well, like the stone curlews and little ringed plover, although the ringed plover is struggling. Some, like greenfinches, suffer what seems to have been a temporary setback due to disease, but make a fairly rapid comeback and barn owls have had a good year after a couple of punishing winters. Hobbies, it seems, have suffered from the increase in goshawk numbers, as they are on the menu for this bird of prey. I suppose the dragonflies will benefit!
Some of the images that stood out for me were those of a family of tiny leverets, born in the open with their eyes open; a tiny reed warbler feeding an enormous cuckoo chick (and we learned that a passing robin also felt compelled to feed this giant); lovely stripy babies on the backs of grebes, and some stunning images of two fieldfares fighting.
By the end we were full of admiration for David’s knowledge and skill, but also for what must be his limitless patience. So many hours of waiting for the perfect shot!

Thursday 12th December – Annual Xmas Social

reporter Liz Bridge

More members than ever came this year and were greeted with a glass of punch, made to the age-old Gribble recipe. After last year’s anniversary celebration, we returned to our traditional format of socialising, eating and quizzing. The table of food looked good and tasted even better. What culinary skills we have amongst the members! The quizzes taxed the ornithological knowledge. What skill those who set the quizzes have. But the main aim of the evening was socialising and what a lot of that went on. We had wondered about having music in the background, but once all were assembled no one could possibly have heard it. Everyone appeared to be enjoying themselves enormously and we are now looking forward to the Summer social. Very many thanks to all those who worked hard in the background to make this such a good event

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