Meeting Reports for 2017

Thursday 19th January – The Birds and Animals of Argentina      speaker Allan Hale

 Report by Sue Gale

 We had yet another wonderful account of a holiday trip from Allan Hale, this time of a month in Argentina.  His talks are always full of humour and interest, as well as the wonderful photographs of birds and their environment.  This is important, because it makes the talk so much more entertaining than a mere list of birds seen.  For example, Allan arrived in Argentina to be met by a request to join a team of three for a bird race on the very next day.  Of course he complied, and found himself exploring the wonderful Reserva Ecologica Costanera Sur in Buenos Aires, in company of the American ambassador!  They did not do well in the race, perhaps because they took two hours out to have an excellent lunch.  The reserve is a huge asset only minutes’ walk from the city centre, but as Allan discovered when he returned the next day to take photographs, is closed on Mondays. None-the-less many good birds can be seen from the long promenade along one side of the reserve, and Allan showed us Argentinian versions of swans, herons, stilts and coots, of which there are three species in the country.  Also seen over the wall were terrapins, whilst on the promenade were Rufous Collared Sparrows, Monk Parakeets and the national bird, the Rufous Hornero.

Flying north to the Ibera Marshes, Allan was treated to a 5 hour drive over deteriorating dirt roads, during which the driver leapt out of the car to pin a long green snake to the ground for a better view.  He used his spectacles!  Allan stayed on an estancia, or working ranch, which had a variety of wildlife within a short distance, around the pond.  This included the largest rodent in the world, the Capybara, and one of the largest birds, the Great Rhea.  Also some lovely Woodpeckers and Cardinals. A day out in a boat on the marshes brought them in close contact with Caiman, Marsh Deer and the enormous nest of the Jabiru stork.

The trip further north to the Iguassu Falls took place in a very small plane indeed.  And one without a working radio, which necessitated a change of plane half way! But they made it, including a fly over of the wonderful Falls (secured by a $50 tip!).  Here the highlight was not the birds, but the butterflies everywhere, of all colours, and the resident Coatis.

Next stop Salta, in the foothills of the Andes, where they encountered the Condor.  I think a birding trip to Argentina would not be complete without one.  From Bariloche, a popular beauty spot, we had lovely shots of the high altitude lakes surrounded by snowy mountain tops. There were many high altitude geese too, but all was not good.  Allan’s hire car was broken in to and his binoculars stolen, along with other less crucial things.  The best he could do for a replacement looked very like an antique! It is notable that one of the undoubted highlights of the trip seems to have been the discovery of a brewery.

A flight to the Peninsula Valdes brought Magellanic Penguins at very close quarters, including one tending an egg.  Also boat trip for whale-watching.  Allan was impressed that the boatmen did not chase the whales, merely driving out in to the bay and then sitting and waiting for whatever might appear.  And appear they did.  Allan had wonderful close views of Southern Right Whales and some brilliant and classic photos to prove it.  Here they stayed on another estancia, this one providing views over the sand dunes of Elephant Seals.  If the view looked familiar to some of us, Allan explained that it had featured in a famous Attenborough scene of Orcas coming ashore to take sea lions.  And indeed he did see Orcas very close in to the beach.

The final leg of the holiday was the trip south to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, in the really deep south.  Here they met the splendid ‘Patagonian Carpenter’, otherwise known as the Magellanic Woodpecker as well as Dalphin Gulls, Gentu Penguins and the Snowy Sheathbill up from Antarctica for the winter.   Here also Allan had to try Beagle Negra, a local black beer,  He loved it, but perhaps drank rather more of it than he would have, had he known it was 7.8% alcohol.  At least he had a good snooze.  What an entertaining evening.  Many thanks to Allan.

 Thursday 16th February – Unravelling the Mysteries of Bird Migration –   speaker Ieuan Evans 

Report by Sue Gale

In his wonderful, lilting Welsh accent, Ieuan gave us the up-to-the-minute info on the valuable work of the British Trust for Ornithology on migration. For probably hundreds of years the destination of many of our nesting birds in winter was a complete mystery.  It was once believed that swallows spent the winter in the bottom of ponds!  Much of the rapid increase in our knowledge has come from the practice of ringing birds, and as Britain is the centre of many migration pathways, work carried out here has been vital.  We now know where many species spend our winter, and that may be literally anywhere in the world, but there are still mysteries left to unravel.  The exact location of House Martins, for example, as only one bird of 3000+ ringed has been recovered.  And although ringing allowed us to find the final destination of migrants, the route they took to get there was mostly guesswork.

Much more effective than ringing, but also much more expensive, is satellite tracking.  Detailed information can be retrieved from tagged birds without the need to recapture them, and their exact routes can be plotted.  Famously the BTO has used satellite tags to plot the migration of Cuckoos.  We now know that some male birds may remain in the UK for as little as 5 weeks, and that they take a variety of routes to reach their principal destination in the Congo rainforest.  They also, sensibly it seems to me, make the journey in stages, stopping off in places like the Po Delta in Italy on their way.  Not all of them travel via Italy though, as a proportion take a much more Westerly route, travelling almost twice as far to get to the Congo.  Perhaps it is not surprising that the survival rate of the birds using the Westerly route is much lower than those on the Eastern one. We see the effect in numbers of cuckoos in the UK.  Birds from areas where they are doing well, like Scotland, use the direct, Eastern route, but those from areas where the species is in decline take the longer Westerly way.  All of the birds move into West Africa before they make the return journey.  It is thought they are making use of the drought-busting rains in the area, feeding up on the clouds of insects released but keeping ahead of the heaviest rains.  This has been christened ‘surfing the green wave’.  You can follow the travels of the tagged Cuckoos on Twitter – twitter@_BTO

Equally valuable information is being received about the migration of Swifts, both in Europe and in China.  Birds from both areas wind up in Southern Africa each winter, and Chinese Cuckoos join ours in the Congo.   As technology moves on, so new methods become available for the investigation of migration.  The Icarus Project will see an add-on to the European Space Station specifically for wildlife tracking.  The space station is lower than the satellites used up to now, meaning that smaller tags can be used.  This will make it easier to follow the movements of smaller birds, and maybe even of insects.  Many thanks to Ieuan for a really fascinating and informative talk.  We look forward to the follow-up from his BTO colleague next month.

Thursday 16th March  – Some Tracking Studies of Gulls and Seabirds    speaker Dr Viola Ross-Smith

Report by Sue Gale

Who knew that a talk about gulls could be so interesting?  Viola Ross-Smith was both entertaining and informative while making an impassioned defence of the reputation of ‘seagulls’.  It just isn’t true that they are evil birds and might even eat our babies!   (Although there was a press campaign a couple of years ago that would have us believe this.) We may think that there are plenty of gulls around locally, and certainly they are considered a pest in some areas, yet several species are of conservation concern.  Indeed the Herring Gull is Red Listed, and the Lesser Black Backed Gull, Viola’s favourite, is Amber Listed.

The Lesser Black Back lives for an average of about 15 years, breeding from the age of 5 years.  They are faithful to their partner and their nest site, as has been demonstrated by the use of tracking devices.  Sadly though, numbers are in severe decline in the large colonies studied over the years.  Worst is the one at Orford Ness, where there were 20,000 nests at its peak and now are none.  Why?  Maybe floods, foxes and food shortages have contributed.  Certainly the rise of landfill sites helped the early increase in populations, and the reduction in these may have contributed to the declines.  In some cases other gulls can be a problem.  Where Great Black-Backed Gulls do well they predate the nests and chicks of other gulls.  To understand the reasons for declining populations, tracking devices have been fitted to trace movements and explore food sources.  Using these small, solar powered devices it has been possible to get very close to the world of a few chosen gulls.  Work in the UK and the Netherlands has shown that good quality food is necessary for the development of chicks.  Any old ice cream just will not do.  Weight gain in chicks correlated with the activity of a fishing fleet.   Gulls were found to take to sea for fish after their young hatched, even where they had happily foraged over land fill sites for their own food.

Viola has also been working to understand the influences of wind turbine farms on the gulls.  They may not all be bad.  Often there is better fishing round the base of the turbines, and tagged birds seem to negotiate the blades without collision. Others seemed to avoid the wind farm areas altogether.  Work is ongoing, and there is much to be done before all the questions can be answered.   Migration routes have also been established using tracking devices, and as with other species there is considerable variation between birds.  In all cases, however, the return journey seems to be more direct and faster.  Some birds do not even migrate, spending the winter wandering round the UK.  But interestingly they seem to fly just as many miles doing this as those who fly all the way to Morocco and back!

Some work has been done on urban gulls that shows that although nesting on rooftops they actually spend very little time in the towns, heading off to feed in the countryside.  Some excellent graphics allowed us to watch the flight of a gull from its nest, gaining height in thermals and travelling to a distant field to follow the plough.  A really traditional gull!  It topped up its earthworm feed by stopping in an estuary on its return journey for ragworms, but at no point was it interested in chips or ice cream.  Fascinating stuff, and many thanks are due to Viola for an enjoyable evening.

Thursday 20th April  – Gibraltar Flyway  – speaker Jake Gearty

Report by Sue Gale

In April we were delighted to welcome probably our youngest ever presenter.  Jake Gearty has been birding since he was 9 years old, so the youthfulness did not mean any lack of experience or knowledge.  He certainly knows what he is talking about.   And after his talk most of us were very keen to visit Gibraltar in migration season.   Jake went to Gibraltar on a trip organised by Inglorious Bustards, staying in an Eco lodge and visiting Morocco as part of the trip.  He was impressed to find that even the car park was full of birds, with many more to be seen down the road.  This trip is particularly exciting for the raptors, and just on day one Jake saw Black Kites, Griffon Vultures, Red Kites, and three Harrier species among others.    The numbers were staggering, such as 250 Short-toed Eagles and over 500 Black Kites on day two! A couple of boat trips yielded good views of cetaceans as well as seabirds like various shearwaters.

There is an important programme for the conservation of the Bald Ibis, which was visited on day 3.  Interesting, but certainly not the most beautiful of birds.  As Jake said, it has lovely colours but is, well, bald!   Also that day they visited Barbate, where the much more lovely Collared Pratincoles were seen, along with many Lark species and the splendidly named Zitting Cisticola.  At the wetlands of La Janda were Swamp Hens, Purple Herons and Spoonbills, followed by a vulture roost which also included smaller birds like Bee Eaters and Blue Rock Thrush.  It was certainly a crammed programme.

The ferry to Morocco took around one hour, after which Jake was able to observe birds preparing to make the crossing.  Many of the larger raptors find this a major challenge, and seem to have to build up courage before attempting the crossing.  Jake had already seen the exhausted state of some on arrival in Gibraltar.  They stayed in Chefchaouen, the Blue City, which looked great (and blue) but smelled of cat’s wee.  En route Jake had called for an emergency stop to view a Black Wheatear.  Other highlights were the Marsh Owl, which gave good views but was ‘dead behind the eyes’, and Slender-Billed Curlew.

The last day was sadly foggy and wet, so a few species were missed, but they still managed Long-legged Buzzards and Thekla Lark.  The astonishing count of birds seen in 6 days made our mouths water.  So over 2500 Black Kites etc, but also some singles like Scops Owl.  Don’t be surprised if future WVBS newsletters feature holiday reports from Gibraltar.  Many thanks to Jake for enlivening the AGM!

Thursday 18th May – Dove Step – A Journey for Turtle Doves – speaker Jonny Rankin

Report by Sue Gale

Johnny Rankin is a keen birder from Suffolk. A bird that he was always pleased to see was the Turtle Dove, but he became aware that it was suffering a serious decline in numbers. We are lucky to be in the core area for these summer breeding birds, but even here numbers are decreasing, down 90-95%. So unlike most of us, Johnny decided to do something about it. He wanted to raise money to support the important research being carried out by the RSPB, which should help us to understand the reasons for the decline and thus to put in place measures to reduce it. Johnny invented Dove Step.
Dove Step 1, at 300 miles from RSPB Lakenheath Fen to RSPB Salthome in Yorkshire, was a big undertaking for Johnny and his friends, who were not experienced walkers, but it paled into insignificance compared to the following two Dove Step walks. Dove Step 2 aimed to connect Suffolk with the French/Spanish border, following the migration route of the Turtle Doves. The big obstacle on this route was of course the English Chanel so they decided this must be a triathlon. The sea part was covered by sea kayaks, and proved problematic in many ways. They were not encouraged to try kayaking across the busy shipping lines of the Channel, so decided to cover a similar number of miles off the Suffolk coast. Even this was really difficult, resulting in many capsizes and much sea-sickness as the weather was not kind and the sea was rough! They then did a 115 mile cycle ride in England, and then walked across France to the border with Spain. Although they had trained hard for this, the walk took its toll. Johnny took delight in showing us some horrendous pictures of his blistered feet. He lost a toe nail and the top of some toes! But Johnny succeeded in completing the distance and raised further funds and awareness.
Titan was the first Turtle Dove to be satellite tagged, and his route was very similar to that taken by Johnny. To continue with this, he decided that Dove Step 3 should cross Spain from South to North. After 18 months in which he trained as much as possible, in Snowdonia, the Cairngorms etc, Johnny set off to cross Spain on a route that crossed several mountain ranges, including the dramatic Picos in the North. He walked for 28 days, sometimes alone and sometimes not, and at times with a support vehicle. The birds kept him going on the solo parts! Plenty of Cranes, Larks, Vultures, etc, and some new birds like a Southern Grey Shrike. He averaged 25 miles a day on Dove Step 3, crossing rivers in spate and ascending 1300 metres on the 25th day! What an impressive undertaking.
Titan then proceeds to cross the Sahara, so Johnny was inevitably asked what was next! It seems they are thinking about something involving the great desert, but we will have to wait and see.
We all ended the evening full of admiration for Johnny and his supporters. This has been an amazing operation that has raised over £12,000 so far for research on Turtle Doves, funding such things as 9 hectares of specially seeded habitat for the doves in this country, and research on the wintering grounds in Africa. Long may he continue!

We have received a message from Jonny following last month’s indoor meeting: “Just a quick note to say many thanks to your members for an excellent evening last week. With the fee, donations and pin badge sales I have been able to add a further £125.11 to the fund-raising total! See; https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/DoveStep3.”

Thursday 15th June – Birding Israel – “Where Migration is Defined” – speaker Yoav Pearlman 

Reporter Sue Gale

After listening to Jake Gearty in April, we all wanted to go to Gibraltar. In fact a group of us will be going next April. Now, after this talk, we all want to go to Israel. Yoav Perlman gave us a fascinating and detailed talk, making the point loud and clear that migration in Israel is like nowhere else. Part of the reason is the location – Israel is a land bridge between Asia and Europe. Large migrating birds will detour through the country to avoid making a sea crossing. Also this country, smaller than Wales, has a wide variety of habitats, from Alpine to low wetlands via desert, steppe and Mediterranean scrub. It is an excellent place to see large raptors in huge numbers, but also to find your own small birds. There are not many birders in Israel.
Yoav himself started birding in 1984 with a Youth Bird Club. He was inspired by a visit to Eilat, where he found fields that appeared to be moving, they were so full of small birds. He began counting raptors on migration at the age of 13. This is a globally important task, as it is the best way to keep an eye on raptor populations. They are easier to monitor as they pass through on migration than by finding and surveying them on their wide-flung breeding grounds. That said, it must be a daunting task, requiring huge concentration, when 23,000 Lesser Spotted Eagles pass in 24 hours! Half a million Honey Buzzards pass every year. We think we are lucky to see one. Other species that go through in large or important numbers include Steppe Buzzards and Levant Sparrowhawks. Black Kites now overwinter there in increasing numbers, possibly because of the larger number of rubbish dumps! Currently Yoav is working both at UEA and at home, studying ‘proper’ Great Bustards (not Salisbury Plain introductions).
The number of small birds migrating over Israel each year has been put at 997 million. A bit precise! Much of this is nocturnal, but many drop in. There are lots of Shrikes of all kinds, and a mouthwatering 12 species of Wheatear. In March there are the Sylvia warblers, including many like the Blackcap and Whitethroat that we are very familiar with, but others we would get excited about like the Spectacled or Subalpine warblers. The mild winters mean that many birds choose to stop there. The Eastern Imperial Eagle, Sociable Lapwing and Pallid Harrier are all faring poorly in terms of world population, but they can be seen in Israel in winter.
Although the country is under-studied and under watched, or perhaps because of that, new discoveries are constantly being made. The very endangered Basalt Wheatear has recently been found and the Black Bush Robin is now breeding. The Pallid Scopps Owl was not known to breed until two years ago, but then 200 breeding pairs were found! It sings very quietly and breeds deep in the heavily sprayed date plantations, seldom visited by birders. That’s their excuse anyway.
Yoav was keen to emphasise that you don’t have to travel far, or at all, to see birds. In the middle of Jerusalem the bird observatory inhabits a small patch of scrub in the grounds of the parliament building. Here they ring 20,000 birds a year, like the Olive Tree Warbler and lots of Flycatchers. And for those with wider interests, Wolves are widespread in Israel. The Golden Jackal, three gazelle species and 50 sorts of bats abound. In the desert, which is very flat and offers no perches for birds of prey, reptiles, rodents and ground-nesting birds all do very well.
Sadly this report cannot include Yoav’s pictures, which were wonderful. We all very much appreciated them, and his enthusiasm and knowledge.

Thursday 20th July – Life on the Edge – The Wildlife of Blakeney Point – Speaker: Richard Porter

Reporter Sue Gale

Most of us are familiar with the location of Blakeney Point, although I am not sure how many of us will have walked its whole length. Richard Porter was keen to show us how well it is worth the effort. The point is perhaps most famous for its colonies of breeding seals. The largest of these is the Atlantic Grey Seal colony, which numbers two and a half thousand pairs these days, although they only bred here for the first time in 1999. They breed in the later part of the year, and are well worth the walk to see in December or thereabouts. These seals produce the richest milk of any mammal – about 60% fat, so no wonder the pups grow incredibly fast. There may be a total of around 7000 animals on the beaches at that time. Common Seals are far fewer in number, and breed in the summer. There were about 10 pups there at the time of the talk. Harbour porpoises and dolphins are sadly no longer seen. Starfish are also common, and there are occasional invasions, covering the beach. Rabbits have also vanished from the area but Hares are increasing. Other creatures that have invaded in huge numbers in recent years are Ladybirds, which we all remember, and Painted Lady butterflies.
The Point is a very important refuge for several birds of conservation concern. Brent Geese and Golden Plover flock there in winter, and Little and Sandwich Terns have nested in summer. Sadly the Sandwich Tern colony is no more, but 53 pairs of Little Terns have nested this year. The point is good because it is largely free of predators, although the occasional rogue fox makes its way to the area. The current threat comes from a wily Kestrel that has learned to hide in the sueda and walk over to take young terns from the nest! Surprisingly another red-listed bird that is doing well on the point is the Grey Partridge. There were 12 pairs nesting there recently. Other important species found there include the Curlew, Ringed Plover, Skylark and Linnet. It can seem strange to us that some of these birds are threatened when we see them frequently, but we must remember to appreciate them. It doesn’t always seem a wise choice of site. Avocets have begun nesting at the Cley end of the shingle spit, but once hatched there is no food for the chicks, which have to be marched across the road to richer grounds. This has meant a new duty for the car park attendant – Avocet Marshall! Many birds use the Point as a staging post during migration periods. At the right time you might find Wheatear, Black Redstart, Pied Flycatcher, Wryneck or Pallas’s Warbler among others. Or large numbers of common birds arriving for winter, like Robins, Knot or any of the Thrushes.
298 species of plant have been recorded on this shingle and sand area. Again some of those we take for granted are nationally rare or scarce, like the Shrubby Sea Blight (sueda) or Sea Lavender. Yellow Horned Poppy rapidly colonises the bare shingle, notably after the sea surges we seem to be seeing more frequently. The surges seem to cause a lot of damage, but the inhabitants of the Point are surprisingly resilient. When the sea swept across in the seal breeding season many feared the worst, but in fact no pups were lost at all! The weather may be less kind these days, but some other hazards have decreased, like the risk of oiling from ship discharge. This is thankfully a rare event now. Many thanks to Richard for a fascinating account, and one that has left many of us resolving to visit more often.

Thursday 17th August – Quiz and Supper Evening                 

Reporter Mary Walker

Once again it was a full house at The  Swan Ringland for our Quiz and Supper evening. Ten teams battled it out, all determined to win the coveted title “Bird Brain of Norfolk”. The topic this year was Animals with a few Birdy Questions thrown in. Friendly banter, cheers and groans echoed round the room as question master Keith revealed his answers.

After a fiercly fought battle, our invited guests, Great Yarmouth Bird Club (Steve’s Shrikes) were crowned the winners, beating Keith’s Kittiwakes team of Keith & Helen Jones and Alan & Janet Hughes by one point. Our guests North East Norfolk Bird Club claimed third place.

A splendid evening was enjoyed by all, and it was great for our club to mix with members of adjoining bird clubs. Narvos sadly had to withdraw their official team at the last minute due to illness and  best wishes were sent for a speedy recovery. The remaining Narvos members joined Alan Baker’s “Avocets” and were soon part of the general melee.

Our thanks go to the Swan Inn for looking after us so well, Keith Walker for organising a hugely successful evening, companies who donated magnificent raffle prizes, and of course all our members and guests who gave so generously, and contributed to our club being the successful and friendly society that it is.

We managed to raise £264 towards club funds and special thanks go to the following who donated prizes plus all the members and guests who dipped deeply into their pockets.

Virgin Wines who provided the prizes for the quiz winners.
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The Swan Inn,                                                 Opticron

Nicholas Watts at Vine House Farm              Swarovski

Pensthorpe Nature Park                                  GJL Bird Food in Fakenham

Team Members

Peter & Ruth Harris                                       Heather Kirk

Ian Brittain                                                     Alan Baker &  Jenny Williams

Paul Riley                                                       Marralyn Sneesby

Ray & Chris Gribble                                      Alwyn & Carole Jackson

Alan & Janet Hughes                                     Martin Spriggs

Richard & Beryl Norris                                  Liz Gibson

Sel & Kathy Jones                                          Lucy Topsom
Plus anyone who we may have missed in the chaos of the early evening.

 

Thursday 21st September: A History of Birding in North Norfolk

Speaker: Moss Taylor

Reporter: Alan Hughes Moss Taylor, a retired GP from Sheringham, has been a keen birder since his schooldays in Essex in the 1950’s. He qualified as a ringer in 1961, and co-authored a number of important birding texts including The Birds of Norfolk (1999) and the BTO Atlas (2011), and in 2011 was only the 14th recipient of the Sydney Long Memorial Medal awarded by the NWT and NNT. After many birding trips to North Norfolk, he decided to move here in 1972. He has also assembled a massive archive of books, pictures, diaries and other historical documents associated with birding in Norfolk. He is therefore eminently qualified to talk on the subject of the history of birding in North Norfolk.
He explained that we are particularly fortunate in Norfolk in there being a wealth of written material on bird life in this area in books such as those by Lubbock in the 17th Century, Stevenson in the 19th Century and Riviere in 1930.
The first part of Moss’s talk he entitled the Age of Collecting as the birding interest was largely based on rare birds being shot and preserved by taxidermy for people to collect. The most knowledgeable birders then were often gamekeepers, and he gave examples of Larry Banville, keeper for the Buxton Family in Sheringham Park. The first 3 records of Shorelark in Norfolk were all shot, and the first White-spotted Bluethroat was found dead. The Buxton family were also responsible for importing the previously extinct Capercaillie from Sweden back into Scotland (the origin of the current population), and one male that was released into Cromer Woods was accidentally shot! Black Grouse was also imported from Sweden and released on the Beeston Bump and in Sheringham Park, where they survived for a few months.
A later resident of Sheringham Hall, Henry Upcher (for whom the Upcher’s Warbler was named by his friend Henry Tristram) was a keen naturalist and shooter, and amassed a huge collection of stuffed birds that can be viewed at the Hall on the 12 days each year that the Hall is open to the public by arrangement with the National Trust. The collection includes a Tengmalms Owl (the 5th and most recent record for Norfolk), an Arctic Warbler shot at Blakeney Point, and a Yellow-browed Warbler shot at Cley. Such was the passion for collecting dead specimens, local taxidermists such as Thomas Gunn and Nash Pashley (of Cley) were also respected as naturalists, the latter writing The Birds of Cley (1925).
Then came the Age of Protection, which began in Norfolk when Sydney Long, a doctor from Norwich, assembled a group of 11 friends to purchase a wildfowling marsh of 435 acres in 1926 to create one of the first nature reserves at Cley, and in so doing set up the first Wildlife Trust (then known as Norfolk Naturalists Trust) at an inaugural meeting at the George Hotel. Patrons of this new organisation included King George V and the Prince of Wales. Long was a keen ornithologist and conservationist, and had a particular interest in the role of mosquitoes in the spread of malaria which, in those days, affected the Norfolk Marshmen.
Winter wildfowling still continued at Cley as that, along with livestock grazing and thatching reed harvesting, produced an income to help manage the reserve, and included the employment of the first “Watcher” (warden) – Bob Bishop. This role has stayed in the family, as Bob’s grandson Billy held the position from 1937-1978, then his son Bernard, and now his cousin George Baldock. In the early days, the reserve was just a reed bed observed from the East Bank, but in the 1960’s the first hides were constructed. Amongst his other duties, Billy Bishop was responsible for shooting 6000 coypu at Cley, believing that these threatened breeding birds such as the Bittern. Billy found the first successful Bittern nest, and also spotted the Black-winged Pratincole (the 8th British record) which was “twitched” by a mere total of 60 birders.
Moss then introduced us to some of the fascinating characters from the local birding scene that made such an impression on him as a young birder. Included in them is his hero, Richard Richardson, who was a talented bird artist and birder, notable for rarely sketching in the field – he had a remarkable memory, and would return home to paint and draw birds he had seen that day. Richardson illustrated the 2 most important books of the day – the Collins Guides to British Birds and to Birds’ Nests and Eggs. He also set up the Cley Bird Observatory, trapping and ringing birds in the Heligoland trap initially at Cley, then moved to Blakeney Point after flood damage in the 1953 tidal surge. He found the first Red-rumped Swallow for Norfolk, and the Radde’s Warbler at Blakeney Point in 1961. He also organised a round-the-clock guard of 2 pairs of nesting Black-tailed Godwit. Moss’s archive includes 17 original paintings by Richardson. He also mentioned other notables in the Norfolk Birding scene including E.C.Arnold (for whom Arnold’s Marsh was named), Dick BagnallOakley (teacher and local naturalist) and Aubrey Buxton (who started the hugely successful Survival series on Anglia TV).
Moss recounted a lovely tale of him and some friends making a model of a Black-winged Stilt (never before recorded at Cley) including legs painted with pink nail varnish, which was installed on the far side of Arnold’s Marsh, until the deception was spotted by Billy Bishop.
He also described 2 Cley birding institutions – the old chip shop (later the home of Brian Bland who ran courses on bird i.d.) and Nancy’s Café where records of rare sightings were telephoned in from all over the country, to be recorded in the café’s diaries (now also in Moss’s archive) – an early predecessor of the Rare Bird Alert!
Moss concluded his talk by expressing his concerns that despite all the support for conservation, there were still many man-made threats to bird species – as witnessed by the arrest of a gamekeeper on the Stody Estate 3 years ago with a sack full of dead raptors.
Moss donated his speaker’s fee and sold copies of his book, In The Countryside, to support the charity run by himself and his partner “Love for Leo” that has raised £10K to support Norfolk children born with cerebral palsy – an emotional conclusion to a really fascinating talk.

Thursday 19th October: A Life in the Reeds (aka. “A Life Aquatic – Making the Most of a Damp Patch!”)
Speaker: Dave Leech

Reporter: Sue Gale

The damp patch in question is Cranage in the Brecks, and Dave is certainly making the most of it. He is out most days in the breeding season, in waders or wetsuit, recording the life of the Reed Warblers in this patch of wetland formed from reclaimed gravel pits. We were all enthused by his dedication to the work, which has been ongoing since 2010, and is unearthing valuable information about the life of these birds. Reed Warblers buck the trend of decline in populations of smaller birds and are increasing in numbers. Part of this may be the expansion of their territories northwards, probably linked to climate change, but they are also doing very well in their traditional areas, so it will be good to understand why. The site is under a square kilometre in size, and the reedbeds are restricted to the fringes of the many pools, so he can work through them looking for nests in three days. He covers the whole site, with the help of some students this year, and is nothing if not inventive when it comes to making equipment to help in the task. He especially recommended a small child’s paddling pool to act as a floating worktable!
The Reed Warblers’ nests are amazingly robust, tethered to the reed stems and able to withstand a gale. The main risk is of flooding, and many nests were lost because of this last year. All of the reed areas at Cranage are used by the Warblers and at a high density – one nest every 5 metres or so. There are possibly as many as 120-150 pairs nesting here. They usually lay 4 eggs, a beautiful and speckled, greenish colour, but clutch sizes do vary. Dave has found that larger clutches happen early in the breeding season, and nests with 3 eggs only are much more common at the end of the year. The breeding season has been getting longer, as climate change makes the reed growing season longer. Could this be one reason for the success of this species? Dave has found that the males do quite a lot of the incubating, something not reported previously. It is possible that nesting over water contributes to the success of the species as there is less predation of chicks. They leave the nest well before they can fly, again to reduce the risk of predation, but it seems they can swim! All of the chicks are ringed at 5-6 days old when their legs have developed sufficiently. This means they can be tracked, and we now know that some 20% of chicks return to this site the next year. This is quite a high percentage. They are also caught in mist nets on the site, which allows their movements to be recorded. This is a Constant Record Site, meaning that nets are placed in the same position and at the same frequency every year. The young birds are not found on site after 50 days from fledging, indicating that they have dispersed by this age. This tallies with reports of birds caught at other sites, but never at less than 60 days.
Another much-studied species is also found at Cranage – the Cuckoo. Reed bed Cuckoos seem to be doing quite well in Norfolk, and up to 10% of the Reed Warbler nests will be parasitized. The Cuckoo nestling is a reddish colour, and easy to distinguish from the small black Reed Warblers. The Cuckoo usually hatches first, and disposes of the other eggs. Dave rings Cuckoo chicks at 8 days old. Any older and they are so large that they are difficult to remove from the nest. They are more or less wearing it! They fledge at 19 days, but only one or two of them survive this long. Many are lost during storms when they are thrown out of the nest. One disadvantage of being so large that they can’t ‘hunker down’ as Reed Warbler chicks do. In most years, only the first brood of Reed Warbler is parasitized, which is just as well for their survival strategy. However in one year the female Cuckoos continued to lay throughout the season, even after the males had left.
Of course Dave notes and records other species on the site, including Mute Swan, Greylag Goose, Moorhen, Coot and Water Rail. Great Crested Grebes nest but have very poor results, and the 50 pairs of Reed Buntings lose many chicks from their low nests to predation. Chiffchaffs are regular nesters, but Willow Warblers and Sedge Warblers are infrequent. There are of course plenty of insects to observe and to provide food for the Warblers, and apparently Harvest Mice are common. Dave is especially interested in Grass Snakes, of which there may be up to 3000 at peak times, and he has plans to do some research on this species. We look forward to hearing about it at a future date.

 

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