Meeting Reports for 2020

Indoor Meeting 16 Jan.2020: Conservation in Norfolk – Bringing the Wild Back into Our Lives
Speaker: Nick Acheson
Reporter: Alan Hughes

 

Before Nick started his talk, both he and Keith warned us that this was not going to be for the squeamish, and if we were not up for this, perhaps we should leave now – although only joking, we all knew that we were in for a tough listen! Born and bred in North Norfolk, Nick works tirelessly to support a number of local conservation organisations, particularly the NWT. In 1926, Cley Marshes was up for sale, and Sidney Long, a doctor from Norwich, assembled 11 of his friends at The George Hotel in Cley village and thereby formed the Norfolk Naturalists Trust, the very first of the Wildlife Trusts. His sole purpose in this was to purchase the marshes to create a sanctuary for wildfowl to breed safely, and to be observed by interested people. Wildfowl shooting, however, continued there to provide an income for the newly formed reserve, and was not considered incompatible with conservation until the 1960’s.
In the century following this meeting in Cley, the landscapes and wild places of the World in general, and the UK in particular have been altered considerably by mankind, largely to the detriment of the natural world. As an illustration of this, the 2nd State of Nature Report of 2019, in which vast amounts of data from many conservation and naturalist groups in the country have been analysed, listed some extremely worrying statistics:-
13% decline in average species abundance
5% decline in average species distribution
41% of species have declined in abundance
53% of species show marked changes
15% of species are threatened with extinction
The primary drivers of these changes were listed as:-
• Habitat loss • Invasive species • Overexploitation • Pollution • Climate change

These are all influenced by:-
• Human population growth • Increased consumption • Reduced resource efficiency The human activities that have been particularly responsible for loss of biodiversity are:-
A) Intensive management of agricultural land. A tripling of agricultural productivity can be shown to coincide with a halving of the numbers of farmland birds. Since the post-war period, 75 thousand miles of hedgerows have been removed, 97% of wildflower meadows have been lost, 90% of farm ponds filled in, 83% of heathland lost, and Winter stubble is now rarely seen. Extensive use of nitrate fertilisers favours a few productive grass species, to the detriment of many wildflowers and arable weeds. Pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, are non-discriminating in the insects they kill and have other effects such as inducing anorexic undernourishment of wild bird populations.
B) Climate change. This is the most urgent and serious problem affecting life on our planet: Carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere are higher than anything recorded in the last 800,000 years, and since 1980, the average temperature in the UK has risen by 1C. This is not a coincidence despite concerted efforts by the fossil fuel industries and their supporters to spread disinformation to persuade people otherwise. The disastrous effects of global warming are numerous:-
• Already many catastrophic weather events are being seen around the World. • Many species are moving North • There is an increased potential for invasive and non-native species, including pathogenic microorganisms, to flourish • A loss of biodiversity • Warmer springs affect species’ life cycles differently, so that, for example, moth caterpillar populations may be abundant before bird species that rely on them are ready to breed • Some habitats are more sensitive to climate change. Nick suggested that there were “winners” and “losers” in the warming world: In the UK Egrets, Spoonbill, Clifden Nonpareil moths, Lesser and Vagrant Emperor Dragonflies, Mediterranean Gulls, Roesel’s Bush Cricket, Long-winged Coneheads and Ring-necked Parakeets are all seen more frequently. But the losers include Brent Geese (due to loss of Tundra breeding habitat and coastal grazing marshes), Snow Buntings (loss of suitable breeding habitats in the Cairngorms), East Anglian subspecies of the Swallowtail Butterfly (swamped by European subspecies), Fen Orchids (increased salinity of their habitats), Willow Tit, Willow Warbler, Meadow Pipit, Pink-footed Geese, May Lily, Wood Horsetail and Dotterel – these have all seen declines.
A recent international report stated that 1 million species were now threatened with extinction. Nick’s depressing conclusion was that “biodiversity and humanity are unutterably screwed” unless we are rapidly able to restore resilience and self-regulating processes to the natural world. To achieve this, he proposed a 6-point plan:-
1. Science. We must all inform ourselves and then bear witness to reputable science if only to challenge the deniers. Scientific research is able to make progress in protecting nature e.g. the use of fish barriers in Barton Broad which has allowed areas of water to clear of algal growth, allowing the growth of water plants, e.g. the DNA identification of the origins of Northern Pond Frogs on Thompson Common as being from Scandinavia, allowing the successful reintroduction of this species to local pingoes. 2. Challenge the vested interests. The vast majority of land in Norfolk is under intensive agriculture: We must apply relentless pressure to ensure that good conservation practice is ensured on our farms. In land developments (such as HS2, which threatens many areas of Ancient Woodland, “justified” by the planting of many saplings) genuine conservation must become a primary consideration.

3. Cooperation. Conservation and other interested groups must work together to ensure successful outcomes e.g. RSPB and local farmers have cooperated to achieve increased success of Stone Curlew breeding in the Brecks.

4. Rewilding/reversion/re-creation and increased connectivity between different wild areas by the creation of natural corridors through which wild species can migrate. Great examples locally include Lakenheath Fen, Roydon Common and Grimston Warren, Foxley Wood, Potter Heigham, and Hickling Broad.

5. Personal responsibility. We must research to inform ourselves. We are much too passive politically. We must consider conservation when gardening, building, buying food (e.g. only seasonally available and locally grown fruit and vegetables, reducing meat consumption), travelling, especially by air. We must stand up and be seen to support conservation NGO’s. Activism (e.g. through Extinction Rebellion) is important and should be viewed as a way to increase agency, and increase our….

6. Hope “Hope” is the thing with feathers By Emily Dickinson
“Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard – And sore must be the storm – That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land – And on the strangest Sea – Yet – never – in Extremity, It asked a crumb – of me.

So ended an otherwise extremely harrowing talk, delivered with passion and commitment. I believe that we were all very impressed with Nick’s eloquence and grateful to him for ensuring that we were fully informed of the severity and the urgency of the problems facing all life on Earth, and at least giving us some tools to combat the worst of the ill effects that we are all responsible for.

Following the brilliant talk on Conservation by Nick Acheson at our January Indoor meeting, many of our friends are talking about the Wildlife Trusts’ opposition to the environmental impact of HS2. The link for further information is http://wrtru.st/Rethink-HS2 .

 

Indoor Meeting 20 February 2020: Owls and the BTO Owl Project

Speaker: Dr Hugh Hanmer
Reporter: Cath Robinson

One of the benefits of the BTO being based in Norfolk is that we seem to have a limitless number of speakers for our club! Tonight, we had a full house to hear Dr Hugh Hanmer who among his many responsibilities has been coordinator of the Project Owl scheme. He started off explaining some of the charm of owls with their appearance; massive eye sockets; amazingly flexible necks; adapted wing feathers which help deaden flight noise, but he thought as there was very little space left in the skulls for brains maybe not so wise! But as he emphasised throughout the evening, they are very difficult to study because of their behaviour. As they are mainly crepuscular or nocturnal then the traditional surveys which depend on daylight sightings are not very accurate (so all estimates come with a health warning) and in fact, may not be representative as for some owls, daylight sightings may not be a sign of healthy behaviour. So, as well the breeding bird survey, the BTO is dependent on periodic dedicated surveys. He then went through our British Owls, giving a general background to what was known (or indeed not known) about each, based on what surveys had shown. Tawny Owls are our most widespread and numerous, with an estimate of 50,000 pairs but declining. They’re fairly static (a ring recovery in Iceland was a keepsake from someone’s binoculars!) Nest surveys show a fledgling rate increasing over time and adult longevity is stable, but as (daylight) surveys have suggested they are in decline, there must be issues restricting the juvenile population reaching breeding age. Why? Little Owls are not native, and I got the impression that he wasn’t as concerned about their fate! Certainly, there didn’t seem to be anything in the owl project plan about them. Another static owl, estimated pairs are 3,600 (in 2016) and declining. Again, fledging rate is increasing and adult survival rate is stable. Why the decline? Maybe a reduction of prey? Short-eared Owl estimates 600-2000 pairs and declining. There is an influx in October and November with a drop off at the end of spring. They are clearly mobile with the furthest ring recovery in Russia. But we know very little. Long-eared Owls estimate 1800-6000 pairs but we really have no idea. They are probably grossly under recorded. There is a peak in recording in February and October and inward migration in Autumn seems to be mainly females. Some European countries have winter roosts of dozens; in the UK it’s more like 6. They are mobile the furthest ring recovery again in Russia. Barn owl. A Conservation Success Story! Yeah! This species has gone from amber to green and the population has gone from 4000 pairs to maybe 14000. We have lots of data about them partly because of their use of nesting boxes. They have had an increase in fledging success, stable survival rate and can double brood, so if there is a slump they can recover well. In the second half he focussed more on the gaps in our knowledge and how we were going about trying to tackle them. Project Owl is about using science and communications to get greater engagement of volunteers thereby getting better data and focussing on priority projects. For the Tawny Owl, the plan was to get better data encouraging more volunteers to provide it. (And some of us club members were some of those volunteers.) So more dedicated surveys (last done in 1989 and 2005): The first was a structured survey of targeted survey squares to compare back to the older ones. Volunteers were asked to record “detected or not “between mid-August and mid- October 2018 on at least 2 occasions for 10 minute listening periods within 2 hours of sunset, which would be peak vocal activity. There were 2900 tetrads and 2120 volunteers, an impressive turnout. It looks like there maybe a 10% occupancy decline since the last survey but they are still very common. Norfolk records are similar to the rest of the country with 56% of squares being occupied. The second survey was a calling survey which was overwinter 2018/19 and there was a big publicity campaign to get more volunteers to become involved and participate. There were about 9500 surveyors and 85% heard an owl. The very best time to hear one is on a warm cloudless brightly moonlit evening around dusk near a tree/woodland. Hugh promised us a report on both surveys in the next BTO news.

Technology-wise, we also learnt of the use of Passive Integrated Transponders (PIT) tags so you can follow tagged birds as they fly past the scanner. This is especially useful for getting information on males which are otherwise more elusive than females. But, of course, these are expensive. With the Short-eared Owl, as they are hard to survey, the plan was to look at habitat use and movement to see what they need. Direct observation is cheap but not very effective; VHF radio telemetry still requires volunteer time and is a bit expensive; and (solar powered) GPS satellite tags are very expensive (£3K each plus) but give great data. Tracking shows that the birds spend most of their time on grassland (rather than heathland) but roam further at night. Non-breeding times have shown huge movements; one mid-Scottish female roamed around central Scotland her first year then bred, left the male to fledge the chicks, went to Norway, attempted to breed there, then went to Ireland, then to Dartmoor, then to Norfolk, then back to Norway, and then stopped recording maybe caught in a storm. One tagged on Aran went to Morocco. Long eared owls: The plan here was just to encourage recording. There was insufficient funding for a survey and while it would seem ideal to do a track on them, GPS solar powered won’t help for a nocturnal bird. Hugh had no answer to how to find one: just look and be lucky! Your best chance might be to hear the chicks “squeaky gate” calls in the summer. Hugh ended by re-emphasising the number of gaps in our knowledge on population sizes and trends; on demographic gaps on habitat usage; and a plea to us to submit records ideally on BTO Birdtrack but anyway to County Recorders. Many thanks to him for such an entertaining presentation.

 

A Zoom Online Presentation: “Normal For Norfolk” 18.06.2020
Speaker: Allan Hale
Reporter: Sue Gale

 

Covid-19 has prevented much of our normal club activity, but thankfully not all of it. In June, Allan Hale
had promised another of his near-annual presentations, and he kindly, and bravely, agreed to go ahead
via Zoom. I am sure this was a new experience for many WVBS members as well as for Allan himself,
but it was a great success. Around 50 devices were signed in to the event, and as many of these had
more than one person watching, there was a very good turnout. Lots of us are becoming more proficient
with on-line events, and this went well. True, there were a few unscheduled noises off, but the pictures
were clear and Allan was always audible.
The presentation itself was something of a departure from the norm, as we have come to expect an
account of exotic travel with wonderful photographs of unfamiliar birds. This presentation was about
the local birdlife, but the photos were still wonderful. Much of the activity described took place at
Boughton Fen and Swaffham Forest – sites in Norfolk that I am not familiar with but which I must visit
in future. Allan knows it very well as part of his local ‘patch’. Indeed, his presentation was a strong
recommendation for the benefits of patch birding. Only by visiting regularly can you know as much
about the progress of local birds.
Allan began with a local success story – Peregrine Falcons breeding locally in Kings Lynn and before
the more famous ones at Norwich Cathedral had started. These dramatic raptors have been one of the
great recent conservation successes, mostly due to their own adaptability to new habitats. Birds of prey
are often the stars of the show, and there are many species nesting in the region. As a ringer, Allan
has privileged views of many young birds in the nest, but sometimes the nests are too high and a tree
climber has to be brought in to help. The lovely pictures of Goshawk chicks were taken by him. Marsh
Harriers are more accommodating, nesting on the ground. And owls are often in nest boxes so access
has been arranged. Allan showed us owl boxes made by a friend from plastic piping- much cheaper
than the ready-made kind!
Kingfishers need a different kind of nest, but a nesting wall set up for them had only limited success, as
they didn’t return to it after the first year. On one occasion the ringers were really pleased to catch and
ring a Water Rail – not a frequent occurrence. But while they were celebrating that catch another ringer
saw a Spotted Crake, an even rarer find. Allan had to bring Ray in to describe the occasion as he had
not seen the Crake.
Some pieces of information Allan was not at liberty to disclose. He had been sworn to secrecy about
the site where the splendid images of Hawfinches – up to a dozen of them – had been taken. Other
birds can be elusive for different reasons. Each Autumn there is a gathering of Stone Curlew in the
Brecks, up to 100 of them in a single field before they set out on their migration. But they are never in
the same field. You have to keep your ear to the ground to find out where to look each year. Other
species are difficult because identification is hard. We nearly all find it hard to distinguish Marsh and
Willow Tits, so Allan gave a short tutorial on the differences.
In all we saw lovely images of about 36 species, all viewable in the Wensum Valley area and all with
interesting tales to accompany the pictures. Very many thanks to Allan for a stimulating and informative
evening.

 

 

A Zoom Online Presentation: “Can you give a Swift a home?” on Thursday 30th July
Speaker: Dr Paul Noakes
Reporter: Sue Gale

For our second virtual indoor meeting we were lucky to welcome Paul Noakes, who is a local GP but
more importantly, a Swift enthusiast and expert. The response to this talk has been without
exception enthusiastic. It was not just full of great information, it was also of practical help to those
who would like to encourage Swifts to nest on their homes.
Paul is a real fan of the Swift, a bird he regards as unique and remarkable. Its life is almost
completely aerial, everything except nesting being done on the wing. The Swifts we know in the UK
are not able to perch or walk – all four claws point forward so it can only manage to climb vertical
surfaces. This also explains its need for a lofty nesting site with clear access routes for easy entry
and take-off. A Swift on the ground is stranded without help. The Common Swift is the one we
know, and we have all heard them flying in screaming groups around our houses, collecting hundreds
of insects in a food bolus to take back to their offspring. They arrive in three main waves, the first of
which is normally in the first week of May in Norfolk: These will be adult birds looking to nest, mainly
at nests sites already known to them. Swifts are very site-faithful, even to the nearest few inches! 2-3
weeks later the second wave is of 2 to 3 year old birds looking to nest for the first time: They will
24 probably have a site in mind, often an existing colony. The third wave arriving a further 2 or 3 weeks
later will be first-year birds that will not breed but will explore the area, learning where the colonies are
and trying out possible sites. Obtaining a nest site is the second of the two big events in the life of a
Swift (after fledging) and once they have one, they will not move unless the site is destroyed. Mostly
they breed for the first time at 4 years old, laying 2 or 3 eggs. The young can cope with adverse
conditions because they put on so much fat, becoming heavier than the adults. If needs be, they can
call on this before they fledge at 42 days. Sadly, though, many Swifts never find a suitable nest site.
Swift numbers are declining, and one of the main reasons for this is habitat loss. This is mostly our
fault! Repaired roofs may have no holes left for nesting, and new builds only rarely make provision for
Swifts. So that is where we can step in and help. We can provide a home for Swifts. If only it was
that simple! Because they are so cautious about adopting sites, it can take years of perseverance
before they finally settle in the nest boxes we provide. To have a chance of success we must put up
the boxes (and more than one is preferable) in the right sort of place. This must be as high as
possible and with an unimpeded flight path. The box should contain a nest cup, which helps by
saving time on nest construction. This alone won’t be enough – you must also play the calls of Swifts
to attract their attention and make them feel that this is a safe site. The calls are not always popular
with the neighbours so it pays to target good weather, and to do this in June and July. If this all
sounds very complicated there is plenty of advice available on-line. Both ‘Action for Swifts’ and ‘Swift
Conservation’ have excellent websites offering advice on how to proceed and where you can buy the
necessary boxes, sound equipment etc.
Paul ended his talk with some specific advice for members who had submitted photos of their current
or proposed nest box sites. This was not only valuable for those individuals but it also gave us a real
feel for what is the right way to attract Swifts. Many thanks are due to Paul for an excellent evening,
and for his willing perseverance when the technology wasn’t up to the job on the first attempt.

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