Meeting Reports for 2015

These are the reports of our Thursday evening meetings for 2015.  Many thanks to all the contributors.

Thursday 15th January – Better Birding by Nick Moran

reporter Sue Gale

What a good way to start the New Year – a pep talk on how to become better birders. Nick certainly gave us plenty to think about, and made us work a bit harder than usual. Before the tea break he gave us tips on 6 aspects of birding that can be improved by even the most experienced among us. Some of those tips:
1. Identification. ’Common birds occur commonly’ so don’t always assume the rarity. A good first question is ‘How old are you?’ as juvenile plumage can be markedly different and can make ID more difficult.
2. The sound approach. Hearing can be as important as seeing when birding and there are lots of resources to help. Many, like xeno-canto.org and books from The Sound Approach, now use sonograms, which give a visual representation of the sound.
3. Reading around. Nick recommended journals like British Birds; annual bird reports at local, county and national level; Bird Atlas 2007-2011, and the Norfolk Bird Atlas. Some of these are available from our library. And on-line, bird club websites are worth a look.
4. Log it or lose it. Keep notes! You can use BirdTrack, run by Nick at the BTO, to record online so you don’t even need a notebook these days. Although some will still prefer the pencil and paper, it is certainly easier to spot patterns and trends in your own notes if you go electronic.
5. Structured Surveys. Join one. There are lots run by BTO, RSPB etc that are always keen to have volunteers.
6. Birding Buddies. Especially good if you have a buddy, or join a group that can pass on their expertise.

Nick asked us to think about other ways to improve motivation and performance over the tea break, and many of our suggestions chimed with his. Further ideas included: competition, like our own Bird Race; travel, and many WVBS members certainly do that one; your own patch, large or small, a regularly visited area can increase your knowledge even if it reduces the number of species seen; use nest boxes; and Conservation – do your bit by talking about it.

Thursday 19th February –  Wader Ringing in the Wash by Tim Turner

reporter Sue Gale

The Wash Ringing Group has been going for 55 years, and is thriving. With a membership of 150, it obviously appeals to the young as well as older birders, and includes overseas students who come to be trained. In fact the demands it makes on its members would suggest that it is not suitable for the old and less firm! Members are expected to work at all hours, including late into the night, and to trek across difficult terrain including deep mud.
The Wash is the UK’s primary waterfowl site, which means there is plenty to do. The group uses cannon-netting as its principal method, as it is aiming to catch and ring as many of the same species as possible, and its target will be flocks in fields or on the edge of the mud at high tide. The nets are large, 30m by 13m, and 4 or 5 may be used at a time. It is possible to catch up to 1000 birds using this method, although the hardy members often have to go into the North Sea to retrieve the birds. Mist netting is also used, mostly at night and using tape lures. So far they have ringed 292,000 birds, mostly with metal rings. The data they collect is sent to the BTO and other organisations, and is frequently contributing to policy decisions at government level. It may also contribute to individual research projects, often at PhD level. They produce their own report every second year.
So what is all this ringing for? Migration studies are perhaps the group’s primary focus. The Wash is such an important hub for many migrating species, whichever direction they are travelling to and from breeding sites. For example, black-tailed godwits, being studied by Jenny Gill of UEA, breed in Iceland but travel south for the winter. Females have been found to travel further south than the males, which tend to stay in the UK and Ireland for the winter. Females are also larger than the males, with bigger beaks, another example of the type of information that can be collected while catching and ringing birds. These waders, like many others, are quite long-lived, so are frequently recaptured and recorded. We also know that the oystercatchers we see in the Wash for winter are mostly from Norway, while the redshank are mostly Iceland breeders.
Methods don’t remain unchanged however. The more recent change from metal rings to colour ringing has led to an enormous increase in records. Obviously the birds do not have to be captured for these reports to be made, and indeed we can all contribute to research by reporting our sightings of colour-ringed birds. Leg flags are being used on curlew and grey plover, another thing to look out for. The newest technology can also contribute, but it is still pretty expensive and therefore limited. Satellite tags can produce useful information about the huge distances travelled and the routes taken. They can also throw up the unexpected, as in the case of a bar-tailed godwit that flew hundreds of miles, only to be confronted by a typhoon. It then returned all the way to its starting point, before trying again some time later.
Very high tech methods now in use include stable radio-isotope analysis, which can track movements by looking at the ratio of different carbon isotopes in the bird’s feathers, but only works if the moult pattern is well understood.
The group is not restricted to waders only, and is currently ringing gulls on the outer bund in the Wash. Natural England is interested in this project, but be warned that it involves a long walk over deep mud, to arrive at a very smelly bund in order to ring the nestlings.
Anyone interested in the work of the group, or considering joining them, can contact them on enquiries@wwrg.org.uk, or take a look at the website at www.wwrg.org.uk. Tim made it clear that new members are always welcome. No previous experience is necessary. We are grateful to Tim for a really fascinating talk which may well prompt members to get involved.

 Thursday 19th March – A Year at NWT Hickling by John Blackburn

reporter Sue Gale

John has been a warden at Hickling, one of the flagship reserves of Norfolk Wildlife Trust, for 18 years and was able to give us much information about the management and development of this special site in the Broads. The highest point on this 600 hectare reserve is a mere 2 metres above sea level, and the deepest Broad only 4-6 ft deep, but it is an internationally important site for a wide variety of wildlife. Lottery funding has provided a 60ft viewing tower and a second electric boat, while reedbed restoration and modifications to dykes have led to successful nesting by bitterns. Current work is aimed at ‘future-proofing’ the reserve by restoring old systems and allowing it to act as a flood plain. There has been a big increase in the number of scrapes and an extensive area of wet reedbed is being created, funded by the Environment Agency, to replace lost reedbed elsewhere, notably on the Suffolk coast.

Winter is the time for reed harvesting, and for an influx of geese and overwintering wildfowl. Wild swans roost on the broad and feed nearby, and marsh harriers and cranes roost in the area, viewable from Stubb Mill. Spring sees the arrival of reed, sedge and grasshopper warblers, the booming of bitterns and the nesting of cranes. This is a key site for water voles, and other mammals include otter, red deer, Chinese water deer and the less welcome mink. Work begins in earnest to improve the habitat to sustain these creatures. The reedswamp, an important resource on the edge of the wet broad, has been under threat from over-grazing by feral geese, so barriers have been installed to allow the reeds to regenerate without interference from the geese. The wet grassland and grazing marsh have been too dry to attract breeding lapwings and redshank, but better management has seen the introduction of red poll and dexter cattle to graze the area, and increased water levels. Konig ponies, a hardy breed from Poland, are used to graze the tall herb fen and fen meadows, assisted by mowing and scrub management.
In summer the reserve sees far more visitors, and an increase in insect numbers too. Swallowtail butterflies, purple hairstreaks, speckled woods, fen mason wasps and Norfolk and Southern hawkers all draw in the insect watchers. Bird lovers are still catered for with visiting spoonbills, and common cranes. There are hopes that little egrets might soon join the well-established heronry. Clear water in the ‘90’s was largely due to the presence of a water weed called Chara, but its population crashed and led to a reduction in water quality. However it is increasing again, and providing good grazing for coots and mute swans. Work on the reserve is reduced to general maintenance in the dry months, but corporate events keep the staff busy.
Autumn sees the arrival of pink-footed geese in large numbers, heralding the approach of winter. Dykes are cleared out, and the resulting silt is being used to reconstruct the reed fringe around Duck Broad. This is now successfully isolated from the rest of the site, allowing conservation to be the priority in this area. John was warmly thanked for a fascinating insight into the management of an important reserve.

Thursday 16th April – The Bus Pass boys in Sri Lanka by Alan Hale

reporter- Keith Walker

How could you possibly be entertained by a trip undertaken by this bunch, four of which wear hearing aids! I wondered how we could possibly match the excitement of the AGM, which was the precursor to the presentation from Allan Hale, who was part of the geriatric five who undertook this pilgrimage.

In all seriousness we have got used to the exploits of our band of friends from the club and their Narvos brothers and the hall buzzed  with excitement.

We were treated to the most amazing pictures of birds and other sights of interest of which strangely worded signposts appears to be Allan’s penchants.

The group had spent two weeks on the Tear-drop Island exploring the Southern & Central parts in search of the thirty three endemics. Lead by Lester Perera aided by Norman the doorman, our friends managed to locate all thirty three endemics. These were accompanied by in excess of two hundred other bird species, as well as other wildlife such as water buffalo, fierce monitors, elephants, snakes and squirrels.

Their journey started in the Southern rainforests of Kitulgala and the palacial accommodation at Sinharaja. This was followed by stop off’s at Uddawalawa, and Tissa to do coastal birding, and then up to the heights of Central Sri Lanka at Kandy, Nuwera Eliya and Sigiriya.

 The vote of thanks was rightly full of praise for this wonderful detailed presentation delivered with such humour.

 I now have a bus pass and wondered if I could apply to join the team? Somehow I suspect my other pass would not  be sanction

Thursday 21st May – Pensthorpe, A Window on the Wensum

reporter Lynda Vincent

As an introduction, Bill Jordan thanked the Society for its  help and support and then gave a brief history of the site ; from a moated village larger than Fakenham in the Doomsday book to the few  buildings now existing.  After gravel extractions, which provided evidence of mammoths along with flint axe heads, the land is returning to nature with a varied range of habitats

The initial  50 acres site covered breckland, water meadows,River Wensum, and lakes but recently a further 40 acres of meadow have been lowered and converted to reed beds with funds from the Catchment Restoration Fund. Reed beds are difficult to establish and several methods have been tried.   The farm land is now Conservation Grade, which has increased the biodiversity after the  steady decline of farm birds since 1947.The new headlands have been sown with bird food plants, and up to 400 finches have been seen and 25% more owls are fledging.

There is a lower density than normal of livestock , English Longhorn cattle and Norfolk Horn sheep are kept  as the  thin grasses and flowers have less nutrition than on a standard farm.  Barley and oats are also grown.

The River  Wensum has been altered in the past 18 months. There is not much dredging, but the work by English Nature allows the water to flow more quickly which provides extra oxygen for fish and plants. Mitigation work is being done on the river to improve the habitats for otters, water voles and white clawed crayfish and numbers are increasing. The existing lakes are also being extended.

 The Great Crane project was initiated at Pensthorpe but was transferred to the Somerset levels to avoid confusion on release, with the existing Hickling cranes.  After rearing and attending Crane school , 90 cranes are now living wild on the levels.

The first batch of corncrakes raised at Pensthorpe have just been released onto the Ouse Washes and they fly to Africa after 40 days!.

To investigate the decline in Turtle doves, the conservation team are looking at the birds’ food, migration patterns and diseases, but the decline could also be down to them being shot  and the fact that the females are not very good mothers.

There are 3 different gardens at Penshorpe and they have now added an adventure playground , which aims to  encourage children to visit.

In conclusion Bill said that there was a lot more that needed to be done in the future and his talk gave an excellent overview of the site and the current work of the site that many members are familiar with.

Thursday 16th July – Owls: A cultural history 

reporter Sue Gale

Mike Toms shared with us his enormous enthusiasm and knowledge of owls. For the first part of his talk, he investigated the history and geography of our relationship with owls. Currently we tend to view them very favourably , and that may be partly because of their facial structure, with its feathery facial disc that channels sound towards the ears, and it’s big, forward-facing eyes. The ears are really acute, and are the main means of finding prey, but strangely the eyes are probably no better than ours at seeing in the dark. Mike gave examples of the way different cultures had viewed owls, from pre-history to the latest TV shows. Throughout he illustrated the talk with stunning photographs, many taken by himself.

In the second half of his talk, Mike concentrated on two species of non-native owls, the little owl and the eagle owl. Since its introduction the little owl has spread widely and become very popular for its character. It is not a threat to British wildlife, but it has declined in recent years and the BTO is trying to understand the reasons for this decline. But as this is not a native species, should we be conserving it at all? The eagle owl is very different in that it is a big, strong predator and if established in large numbers could have a significant effect on other populations. It is not clear if this species has reached the UK unaided, or if the wild population is the result of escapes. We learned that there are several hundred eagle owls lost every year! We do know that this species is a serious competitor for tawny owls and long-eared owls, so should we attempt to conserve it?

 Many thanks to Mike for a fascinating talk which gave us many facts but also some important questions to think about.

Thursday 20th August – Summer Social  Evening

reporter  David Knight

We arrived early , or so we thought. The tables were already out and the BBQ well alight. The A team were in their well rehearsed Organisation Mode.

Members started to arrive well before 7.30 and the tables soon filled up. Just after that the burgers and sausages were ready and we settled down with good food and good company. The evening was warm and more  importantly, dry.  There was a great choice of puddings to follow and everyone had their fill. As we drank our tea or coffee Keith Walker introduced his  light-hearted quiz. Most had earlier tested their Latin – named bird translation skills and now was the time for the answers and scores. There was a winning score of 43 but the scoring rules were totally beyond me.!  The winner turned out to be an ex-chairman (and also ex-president) and this was met with howls of “Fix” and calls  for a recount! The winner, who shall remain nameless, was not at all deterred by the barracking and collected his prize .

Everyone  helped to clear up and it was time for home. Altogether a great evening.

Many thanks to all the movers and shakers who made the evening possible. They do it every year and every year it is a great  success. We didn’t realise how lucky we had been with the weather until we drove home to find only a few miles up the road there had been a downpour earlier and the roads were full of puddles. What’s that saying about the sun shining  on the golden?

Thursday 17th September – The Pantanal 

reporter Sue Gale           

What a lucky man, to make the trip to the Pantanal, Brazil’s great wetlands. David Pelling is a cat lover -all kinds- but he had never seen a Jaguar. He has now. He watched one for one and a half hours,taking stunning photographs that he shared with us. To achieve this ambition he crossed over two hundred bridges in the last hundred miles of the long journey to the Pantanal, on a dirt road  plagued with dust and straying cattle. Worse, it poured down with rain for most of the time! David also managed excellent views of giant River Otters and hundreds of Caymans. Those Cayman can be up to four metres long!

But those of us who were anxious that the big game might eclipse the birds in the talk need not have worried. We were treated to lovely photos of many, many birds,including the beautiful Hyacinth Macaws, several Toucan species and Rufus Horneros on all the telegraph poles. There were parrots and hawks; Jabiru and Snail Kites, that really do eat snails; kingfishers and the very special Sun Bittern. Thanks to David for a most enjoyable evening.

Thursday 15th October – The Wissey Wetland Project 

reporter – Sue Gale

Nick Carter of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust told us about the Wissey Wetland Project (WWP).   This forms part of the Trust’s plans to create Living Landscapes around the county, with the aim of joining up areas of the countryside, not just reserves, to provide landscape scale habitats for birds and other species.   Hopefully they will also succeed in connecting people with their environment, and making it more resilient to climate change.  WWP is one of 9 such schemes in Norfolk.  Its area of 90 square kilometres includes fenland, much of which is farmland, plus the land around the tributaries of the Wissey and a bit of Breckland.  There is a wetland corridor provided by the Wissey and the Cut Off, and a surprising amount of woodland.

The farmland in the area is already good for the endangered farmland birds such as Corn Buntings, Yellow Wagtail, Turtle Dove etc, and the plans are to create reedbeds to compensate for those being lost along the North Norfolk coast due to sea level rise.     Bittern and Marsh Harrier will be the key species here.  Nick told us how water is being managed to make these reedbeds, by digging a lagoon and controlling water levels using several types of sluice. Pools can be deep in the centre to provide fish refuges, but will have shallowly sloping sides so that bitterns etc can hunt along the reed-fringed edges.  Already the Hilgay part of the project has a wide variety of wildlife.   Mammals include almost all of the expected species, including badger, otter, watervole, several deer and 9 species of bats.  120 bird species have been recorded.  Kingfishers moved in very quickly, and there are Avocets and Little Ringed Plovers nesting, among many others.  To support all this, over 60000 reed plugs have been planted, and we saw how some are already developing into reedbed.  There are 60 species of aquatic plants in the area, and even a scarce Breckland plant, the knotted pearlwort, has turned up.

Not all of the species found are entirely welcome.   There are several invasive water plants, such as Crassula and water fern, and a close watch is being kept for the signal crayfish in the waterways. Even some of the welcome species can cause problems.  Watervoles, which are protected, have twice caused big delays to major earthworks, while the sites were cleared of them before work could start.  However the WWP is a large scale development that has exciting prospects, and we were grateful to Nick for giving us such a good account of the progress so far.

Thursday 19th November – Spitzbergen – Kingdom of the Ice Bear     reporter Sue Gale

Julia Burton gave us her usual excellent presentation of beautiful photographs and interesting information, all put together with humour and wit.  A really entertaining evening in which we learned a lot about Spitzbergen – The Kingdom of the Ice Bear.  I have never been keen on the idea of travelling to the colder parts of the planet, but this talk has converted me.  The scenery Julia showed us was so spectacularly beautiful, and there was plenty of wildlife to see.  The talk did come with a caution, that the weather cannot be relied upon to behave as well as it did on Julia’s trip.  The skies were often blue, and the cold, icy waters were so calm they looked almost oily.

Spitzbergen is the largest island in the Svalbaard archipelago, and in winter it is a cold, dark place where survival is the challenge, often met by migrating out.   But for a few short months the half of the island not covered in snow blooms with lovely flowers, mosses and lichens.  There are species we know as trees, but the tallest are only 25-30cm high!  Tucked in among these plants, 38 species of birds breed regularly, with another 12 occasional breeders.  The only one of these that remains for the whole year is the Rock Ptarmigan, a hardy bird indeed. In summer the Eider ducks hang out near the dog kennels, because the dogs give warning of any approaching predators. .  Those predators include Arctic Fox and of course the Polar Bear, not to mention larger birds like the Glaucous Gull.  Other mouth-watering species are the King Eiders, the Grey Phalaropes, and huge numbers of Little Auk, Brunnich’s Guillemots and Arctic Terns.  Even birds we are used to seeing are different here, resplendent in their summer plumages.

Although the most numerous mammal in the arctic is the Ringed Seal, Julia saw only one.  But she did see many Bearded Seals and Walruses.  Also a fine haul of whales, including Fin, Humpback, Minke and Beluga whales, the latter in an unusually large pod of around 100 animals.  Because most of these animals exhibit no fear of people, she was able to get really close to many of them, resulting in amazing photographs.  The guides were obviously very careful with their passengers on this trip, but even so the proximity with some of the larger animals, such as the Walrus and the whales, looked quite alarming at times.  Most amazing, though were the Ice Bears themselves. This is the local name for the Polar Bear, and so much more fitting.   One even swam between two of the inflatable Zodiacs at one point, which I imagine was quite a worrying experience, but one not to be missed.   As indeed was this talk.  Many thanks to Julia.

Thursday 10th December – Our Annual Xmas Social 

Nearly forty members gathered for our annual Christmas Social.at Weston Longville Hall for All.IMG_0513 We arrived early but the tables and chairs were already in place,the raffle table quickly filling up as was the food table which was almost groaning under the weight of goodies. We were greeted by a welcome mug of hot punch. It was all looking very christmassy and the usual group of members had obviously been preparing  for some hours  to get the evening off to a flying start. It was great to wander and greet friends and have a mardle. There was no rush but  it was soon time to face the three separate quizzes and Lin handed out sheets of paper for our answers. There was a picture board of bird species ;a cryptic  quiz with sixteen fiendish clues and one of  thirty general knowledge questions. All had members gathered round trying to find the answers. Several returning more than once determined to complete each quiz. Many, along with myself, were baffled and despite best efforts could not answer many.  Some clever dickies, however, did find them somewhat easier and were soon up collecting their prizes. I take my hat off to them, although  I now know the name of the bird on the Twitter emblem is called Larry! Then the food. A great choice of starters and puddings. Even coffee to finish. What  an enjoyable evening thanks to the efforts of all the A team. I dare not name you individually as I’m sure to miss someone out. You do it every year and it is always  very much appreciated

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