Meeting Reports for 2016

These are the reports of our Thursday evening meetings for 2016.  Many thanks to all the contributors.


Thursday 19th January 2016 –  The North Norfolk Coast, History, Landscape and Wildlife  –  Speaker David North (NWT)

report by Liz Bridge

We saw aerial views of the coast line prior to the storms of December 2013 and afterwards.  On one of the photo’s, taken while the marshes around Cley were still under water, we could clearly see the original path of the river which had been re-routed to allow for the improvement of the sea defences.  So much change occurs without us realizing and it was fascinating to see the marshes and coast line from above. David North, a very enthusiastic speaker, took us back in time many millennia to explore how the North Norfolk coast came to be as we know it today.  He then gave us an idea, his own personal view, of how it might look in the future.

Wildlife and Landscape took over the second half of the talk and we saw some interesting shots of birds, lovely landscapes and glorious sunsets.

Thursday 18th February 2016 –   Flickers, Snappers & Other Weird Creatures   of Southern Ontario  – speaker Su Gough (BTO)

report by Sue Gale

Once more our appetite for travel is whetted. Su Gough, of the British Trust for Ornithology, has spoken to us before, but it is always a pleasure to welcome back an accomplished speaker who also has stunning photographs to show us.  These included lovely close-ups of birds, but also great views of the city and the countryside, including Niagara Falls.  The city of Toronto, we learned, is excellent for birds, with ravines running through the city towards the lake that teem with wildlife.  The offshore islands and peninsula are home to conservation areas as well as the city airport.  There are birds and other creatures that are immediately familiar to a British visitor, and many that are obviously closely related to ours, but there are many that are from entirely different families.   Mockingbirds, tanagers and cow birds were unfamiliar to most of us, and there is even a resident hummingbird. Niagara can also be good for birds, but the trick is to go at dawn, before the tourist hordes arrive, when even bald eagles may be found fishing over the river.                                                    

After exploring the city and its environs, Su took us to the Bruce Trail, which follows the Niagara escarpment for 800 miles, and is a UNESC World Heritage site.  The steep scarp is covered in trees, mainly the Eastern White Cedar, that grows very slowly and may be very very old.  The area is especially lovely in Spring, when the woodland floor is covered in Trilliums, the national flower, and later when the spectacular orchids flower.  A different group of birds is found out here, including the Turkey Vulture, the large Pileated Woodpecker and some brilliantly coloured birds like the Scarlet Tanager and the Baltimore Oriole.  It was a pleasure to see Su’s pictures and share her holiday memories of the area.  

Thursday 17th March – Farming and Wildlife – speaker Nicholas Watts

report by  Sue Gale

Nicholas Watts reminded us ‘Isn’t Nature marvellous!’ several times during his talk.   Nicholas farms Vine House Farm in the Lincolnshire Fens, and he showed us how much it has changed since the 1950s, when it was a typical fenland farm with a dairy yard, growing mixed cereals and other crops. There are far fewer dairy yards these days, and the variety of crops grown has decreased alongside the increase in field size.  We saw pictures of some truly enormous farm machinery, without which the modern farmer would be lost.   But he also pointed out how the changes in farming methods, the move towards efficiency and tidiness, have worked against wildlife.  Maps showing the distribution of nesting corn buntings told a very sorry story.  Nicholas has done all he can to provide suitable homes for birds and insects on his farm.  He has planted spinneys, left wide grass margins, dug ponds, provided nest boxes and allowed natural wildflowers to grow in some cultivated land.   These changes have increased the numbers of farmland birds on his farm, but we really need all farmers to behave like this if we are to save the situation.  Some of the measures that can be taken are not too demanding.   Cutting only one side of drainage ditches, leaving the other to provide a reedbed, can encourage reed warblers, and the cuckoos that depend on them.   Not flailing hedges until after nesting times, and avoiding harvesting techniques that sweep up nests, birds and all, can help.  Nicholas has provided sparrow nestboxes and red millet seed to attract the declining tree sparrows, and has been so successful that 500 young sparrows were ringed last year.  He has also left ‘skylark plots’.  These are bare areas away from the tramlines that are patrolled by foxes and other predators, so that the larks can land and run to their nests without danger of detection.

This was such an inspiring talk, and many of us took away ideas about small things we could do in our own gardens.

Thursday  21st April  – The  AGM + Uganda, the Pearl of Africa  speaker  Allan Hale

 Report by Sue Gale

April saw the AGM of the Society, which passed without event as usual.  But it was followed by an excellent account of the Birds of Uganda by Allan Hale.  As was pointed out in the vote of thanks at the end of the talk, Allan is a founder member of WVBS, and over the years has made a great contribution.  As well as delivering great entertainment value in what has become his annual talk, he acts as returning officer for elections to the committee, and has contributed to numerous research and conservation projects, such as the tern raft at Sparham Pools.

Allan’s visit to Uganda covered a large number of reserves, from the Entebbe Botanical Gardens to the Murchison Falls National Park and even the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (yes, really).  I think this last was the most challenging venue, where travel was difficult, accommodation basic and Allan had to have a tick removed from his shoulder.  But all of the travel was declared worthwhile, with 452 species of birds seen.  Many of these were the wide variety of kingfishers, many of which live deep in woodland in spite of their name.  There were lots of large, long-legged birds like the many heron varieties, storks, Ibis and cranes, and some big non-waders like the hornbills and turacos.  Allan also saw plenty of game, including lions, crocodiles, vervet monkeys and baboons.  But I think the star of the trip was the enormous and peculiar Shoebill.  Not the most beautiful bird in the world, but certainly one of the most distinctive.

Thursday – 19th May      Birding and Birds in Arabia                speaker -Nick Moran

Report by Ray Gribble

The WVBS presenters go from strength to strength! Nick is currently the organiser of BirdTrack for BTO but his talk this evening was based on the time he spent as a teacher in Dubai. Nick took every opportunity to study the birds through the seasons and starting in September, the start of the school year, he took us through the birds that occur in the region with excellent photos, maps and good humour. It was both informative and entertaining. The area covered ranged from Yemen through Oman to the United Arab Emirates with visits to Socotra, with its endemic species Socotra Bunting, Starling, Sunbird & Warbler and Dragon Blood Trees, and Masirah islands. Migration through Arabia is far more complex than the UK with many sub-species passing through that breed from Scandinavia to Russia e.g. in excess of 10 races of Yellow Wagtail are recorded.

Thursday 16th June – Ospreys and Us : How to Create a Conservation Success Story 

speaker Lucy McRobert (Wildlife Trust)

Report by David Gibbons

The theme of “letting the public take ownership” in regards to conservation became evident during Lucy’s stimulating talk to the members present.

We had the history of the Osprey from its’ stronghold in Scotland with the culture of the “sporting estate”, in the Victorian era and persecution of birds of prey by gamekeepers, egg-collectors, and environmental impacts with pesticides etc. which saw the decline of Ospreys from 1870’s to the 1970’s. UK attitudes began to change when landowners saw tourism benefits in Ospreys starting with RSPB involvement at Loch Garten.

Interference with nature doesn’t often work, but the translocation of 64 – 6 week old pre-fledglings over a 5 year period between 1995 and 2001 saw the beginning of the Rutland Water project in conjunction with Anglia Water. This was possible as the Scottish Osprey population was sufficiently stable. As male birds prefer to breed close to sites from which they fledged these birds had   “to learn their environment” in the hope that they would adopt Rutland and eventually breed there.

The second un-natural point was to provide them with artificial nests, nesting space on telegraph poles, and thirdly the reservoir was stocked with fish for them. Eventually Ospreys remained and bred, so success. Rutland birds have also relocated in Wales. Overall in the UK there are now 162 breeding pairs, an increase of 128%.

Lucy also gave us an interesting insight into the Osprey’s migration to the Gambia and Senegal in West Africa and how the local environment and population relate to the birds. As young Ospreys do not migrate back to the UK for several years they end up staying in these countries until mature enough to breed so the local population have little or no concept of migration.

Satellite tracking shows that Ospreys are lazy, same perch, a bit of easy fishing, back to the perch travelling no more than half a mile from their perch. Also it appears that they allow humans closer contact – is this because the Osprey have less stress in this “non-breeding” period?

With Wildlife Trust help in local schools, assistance with computers, broadband, giving talks etc, both children and adults became more involved with the Ospreys, awareness of migration, causes of fatalities, problems with the local environment ie: litter and fishing nets. This has now spread to over 100 schools worldwide.

Likewise in the UK, use of webcams, eco-tourism, the growth of wildlife photography etc, all help to concentrate the public awareness, including landowners, of the benefits of conservation.

Outdoor Event – Thursday 21st July – Summer Social Evening – Quiz N Supper at The Swan Inn Ringland

coordinators Mary and  Keith Walker

Report by Keith Walker

The quiz was held at the Swan Inn at Ringland and fifty members turned up dressed in their summer finery.

From the hubbub and general merriment everyone appeared to enjoy themselves. After a fiercely fought competition Sue’s Sandpipers (Sue Gale, Liz Bridge, Liz Gibson, Lynda Vincent and John Fielder) were the overall winners, closely followed by Alan’s Avocets and Steve’s Shrikes.

The hostelry provided splendid facilities and judging by the empty plates, good value, excellent simple fayre.

Thanks to the generosity of Virgin Wines who provided the winners prizes. Also corporate donations  from Cley Spy, Pensthorpe, Waitrose, Virgin and Sainsburys, together with generous support from club members to the raffle, which led to the event making c £160 for club funds.

Editor’s Note Many thanks to Mary and Keith for organising what turned out to be a great evening.

Thursday 18th August   Trinidad &Tobago  –  speaker David Pelling

Report by Sue Gale

Undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of Trinidad and Tobago birdwatching is the Asa Wright reserve in Trinidad, and this is where David started his tour.  It is situated in the highest area of the island, up to 3100ft, and the rainfall on this North Ridge is about 12 feet in 6 months!   No wonder there is plenty of rainforest vegetation.  It seems you hardly have to leave the veranda of the visitor centre to see an enormous range of beautiful birds, preferably around dawn, with a cup of coffee.  The hummingbird feeders attract 9 different species, the smallest no bigger than David’s thumb (not sure about mine).  David’s lovely images showed us their range of colour and form.  They are joined by Honeycreepers, including the blue-coloured Green Honeyeater (the female is green), and the stunning Purple Honeyeater, which really is purple.  Bananaquits and Tanagers also abound.  The rainforest is also home to 3ft Monitor Lizards, and Agoutis that clear up the scraps under the feeders, as well as lots of epiphytes on the trees.

David visited the cave where the Oilbird roosts during the day, but you don’t really get a very good look inside the dark cave.  This bird got its name because the young ones used to be collected and boiled up to extract oil for cooking.  Kiskidees, on the other hand, get their name because that is what they say.  And there are plenty of them around the island. Elsewhere the Great Black Hawk and Jacanas   inhabited the Aripo Livestock Station among the cattle.    Here David noticed that the epiphytes can grow on cables as well as trees.  At the Arimo Swamp there were few birds of note except the rare Rufous Crab Hawk.  This area has been drained for agriculture so it hardly deserves to be called a swamp, but the Carow Bird Sanctuary certainly does.  Here the visitors took to a boat, to see snowy egrets and a roost of 3-4000 Scarlet Ibis.  A month earlier there would have been 20,000.

In Tobago, the smaller island, David stayed in the Blue Waters Hotel, a venue known to several of us it seems.  The population of this island is only 54,000, much smaller than that of Norwich.  A visit to the uninhabited sanctuary of Little Tobago was rewarded with views of Red-billed Tropic Bird, Brown Booby and Brown Noddy, as well as the Magnificent Frigate Birds that soar overhead all the time.  Less successful were guided outings with local guide Newton George, to the rainforest areas and North coast.  In the forest the target bird of White-tailed Sabrewing was indeed seen, alongside Manakins, notably the Blue-backed, but the outings were shorter than expected.

Throughout his talk David’s wonderful photographs showed us what we were missing.  His talks are always entertaining and beautiful to look at.  Many thanks to him.

Thursday 15th September – A  Butterfly &Wildlife Bonanza in  The Lost Pearl of the Balkans

speaker  Julia Burton

Report by Sue Gale

Julia Burton always provides a stimulating talk, and she was clearly determined that this jaunt through the butterflies of Macedonia should be no different.  She promised not to just go through a list, but to throw in some background information and to show us the butterflies found on some virtual walks through the different habitats.

Macedonia is an area of former Republic of Yugoslavia not known to many of us.   It is only just larger than Wales, but has 205 species of butterfly recorded.  Luckily not all of them featured in this talk, or we might indeed have ended up with stony faces (like the statue Julia used to illustrate this point).  Butterfly identification becomes really difficult when there are large numbers of fritillary species, graylings, blues etc.  Julia’s excellent photos enabled her to point out very subtle differences that separate the species.

In the Pelister National Park Julia’s party had privileged access with the wardens, and high in the mountains encountered beautiful butterflies, often with beautiful names, like the Queen of Spain Fritillary.  On the lovely flowers above the tree-line were the Balkan Fritillary and the Purple Shot Blue – a copper with an underwing similar to those of the blues – and the stunning Balkan Copper.  Lower down, in Veles there were tortoises to be seen, woodpeckers and Imperial Eagles, Staghorn Beetles and Praying Mantis and a

cricket as big as your hand.  So not only butterflies.  They also came across a church and monastery that had only one monk.  And he spoke perfect English!  Up high again, in the limestone mountains, they had close views of Brown Bears, but not the threatened Balkan Lynx, which is the subject of a collaborative conservation programme across the countries of the Balkans.

Lake Ochrid is 3-5 million years old, and has 212 known endemic species, but it is under threat of development for hotels and an artificial beach.  Here there were lots of species of Grayling, the beautiful Southern White Admiral and two lovely Hairstreaks, as well as a breeding group of Lesser Kestrel.  At this point Julia actually set us some homework, which was to Google the mating behaviour of the Leopard Slug.  Apparently we will be amazed, but I haven’t done it yet!

Moving to Lake Prespa, Julia also moved countries, into Albania.  Here the farming was noticeably more primitive, all done by hand in very small fields.  Picturesque but a hard way of life.  We were especially interested to hear about the bird species here, including Squacco Heron, Little Bittern, Pelicans and Ferruginous Ducks.   But we ended with some of the most spectacular butterflies of the area, the Scarce Swallowtail, Large Tortoishell, Large Copper and the Eastern Festo


Thursday 20th October – Montagu’s Harriers/Snettisham    

speaker Jim Scott

a report by Sue Gale                                                      

We got two talks for the price of one at the October indoor meeting. Jim Scott is the RSPB warden at Snettisham, and a Montagu’s Harrier enthusiast.  He has been involved in a Montagu’s Harrier monitoring scheme in Norfolk for years.  The birds arrive in late April or May, and leave again in August/September for their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa.  We are very fortunate that East Anglia is one of the key breeding areas for this, our rarest raptor by far.  There was a period in the 1970’s when there were no breeders at all in the UK, and there have never been more than 12-14 nests in any year since then.  Even then the population fluctuates, and in 2013 there were only 3 nests.

Although in theory they will nest in a variety of habitats, in Norfolk they are almost always in arable crops.  This has caused problems with predation in the past, presumably by foxes, and especially when the nests are in the favoured rape fields.  This has been countered by a partnership between the conservation organisations and the landowners, and the nests are now fenced to protect the chicks as soon as they are hatched.  Interestingly, a large wind farm proved no deterrent to successful nesting.

Even with this help, the UK population is not increasing that like across the North Sea, so a tagging scheme has been started, working with the Dutch.  At £5000 a tag, these are only risked on adults at present, as survival is lower among newly fledged birds.  The scheme has shown that these birds are very nomadic, and use many and varied routes to make their annual migration.   Males tend to return to the same area each year, but females may move a lot – up to 1000km!  You can follow the travels of the tagged Harriers, including Roger, tagged in 2015 in Norfolk, on Twitter –  @UKmontagus.

After tea, Jim told us about his other big responsibility, the RSPB reserve at Snettisham.  This is the biggest RSPB reserve in England, at over 1830 hectares.  But most of this is mud, and a lot is saltmarsh, so the familiar seashore and lagoons are only a small part of it.  In spite of its size there is no fresh water at all on the reserve.  It is the most important site in the country for wintering wildfowl and waders, as that mud is a huge food source.  It is also important for breeding birds such as the Redshank, and as a winter refuge for raptors like the Merlin and Hen Harrier. But perhaps Snettisham is most famous for its winter spectaculars:  at dawn or dusk between 26,000 and 40,000 Pink Footed Geese can be seen leaving and returning to their overnight roost.  These are best seen at dusk, when they return en mass, but avoid 5 days either side of the full moon or you may be disappointed. On the other hand the full moon is the best time for the wader spectacle, when the tides are highest and vast numbers of waders take to the sky as they are pushed inland by the rising tide.

It was lovely to hear about a special bird and a special reserve from a true expert and enthusiast.  Many thanks to Jim Scot.

Indoor Meeting – Thursday 17th November – Swifts – Problems and Solutions – speaker Dick Newell

 Report by  Sue Gale

Well this month’s talk garnered more enthusiastic discussion and questions than any I can remember.  It was packed with information about swifts, their migration and how to attract them to your home.  Dick did some myth-busting too.  Apparently swifts ARE able to take off from the ground, provided they are healthy.  Swifts are not closely related to Swallows and Martins, in fact sharing a common ancestor with Humming Birds!  There are swift species all over the world, but they have their local differences.   Those in the orient make their nests entirely out of saliva (prized for bird’s nest soup) while ours use only some saliva to glue the other stuff together.  New world swifts use no saliva at all. They all have phenomenally good eyesight, and they do indeed spend most of their life aloft, feeding on airborne insects and spiders.

Recent work to track Swift migration using geolocators has produced better information about their routes and habits.  Dick showed us a brilliant animation of the results of tracking, showing the birds’ positions moving across Europe and Africa, eventually congregating around Mozambique.  Little was known about the routes taken once the birds left the Mediterranean, or about their return routes.  Now we know that they spend a good week or so in Liberia on the way back, fattening up for the journey.

Sadly Swift numbers are declining.  This may be because there are fewer insects than there used to be, but Dick thinks a major problem is the loss of nest sites.   Swifts are very nest-site faithful, but there is no legal protection for those sites when the birds are not using them.  (Dick was clearly indignant that there is much better protection for Bat nest sites, which cannot be damaged at any time of year.)  Modern buildings with better insulation, often no eaves to nest under, do not provide the sites that older buildings did.  However Dick thinks we have a solution in the provision of nest boxes.  This has been spectacularly successful in the USA, where over a million homes provide nest boxes for Purple Martins, resulting in the entire population now nesting in boxes.  We need to do the same for Swifts in the UK.  Much work has been done by Dick’s organisation, Action for Swifts, in developing suitable nest box types, either singles or in colonies, on existing towers or on poles.   In all cases it is necessary to attract the birds by playing a tape of Swift calls.  You can find information on how to make or purchase the necessary equipment and boxes on the website at  Boxes have been installed in numbers across Cambridgeshire principally, but judging by the number of enquiries at the end of the talk, and the nest-boxes sold, there will soon be more in Norfolk. Action for Swifts has even persuaded major builders, Barratt Homes, to install boxes in their new-build houses.

In spite of some technical glitches this was an excellent evening, and many thanks to Dick for a stimulating talk.

Indoor Meeting –Thursday 8th December – Xmas Social  – coordinator Lin Pateman

 Report by  Liz Bridge

What a gathering we had  at the Christmas social this year more members than usual and the food, it had to be seen to be believed, surprize surprize (though may be not) it all disappeared.  After imbibing the now renowned ‘Gribble’ Punch, brains were put to work by four challenging quizzes. Identification of bird feathers was new this year, and there was much scratching of heads trying to work them out. Lots and lots of fun.

Very many thanks to Lin for organizing this very popular end of the year event.







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