You will find out about all the exciting stuff going on with the RSPB in the east of the UK. We cover our sites in the following counties: Norfolk, Suffolk, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, and some of our great Lincolnshire ones. So if you are if you have never heard of the Strumpshaws and Snettishams or Stour Estuary or Sutton Fens here is you chance.
Sometimes we are reminded just how vulnerable the natural world is and how at mercy of human actions it is at all times.
No one could have watched the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster without fearing for marine and bird life.
Just yesterday, we had one of those ‘oh no’ moments in our region too, with the news that about 500 litres of oil had leaked from a ship in the Thames Estuary. The oil soon spread and reached to Canvey Island and washed up on beaches. Still reeling with recent footage from America, my mind couldn’t help but fill with shocking images of oil coated birds, struggling to survive.
In the Thames in particular, many thousands of ducks, geese and wading birds use the Estuary as an important stop-over and refuelling point on their migration south from their Arctic breeding grounds. If they land in polluted areas and get oil on their feathers it can damage the waterproofing and insulation and at worst prevent them from flying. In the longer term, if oil gets into the estuary mud, it could poison much of the food the birds depend on to survive the winter.
Thankfully, the impacts of this spill appear to be minimal. As with any spill, we’ll be monitoring the wildlife closely and if you are concerned about any individual birds, then do contact a local welfare organisation such as the RSPCA.
It’s a fragile, fragile world.
Image Mike Richards, RSPB Images: An oiled guillemot - thankfully an archived image not from the recent Essex oil spill
Often, in spring, I’m thrilled to hear an unusual wailing call sailing its way with the wind across RSPB Minsmere nature reserve. It sounds like a high-pitched referee’s whistle. This means one thing – the stone curlews are back.
These birds are extremely rare and I always feel privileged to be able to go and see them at Minsmere (not something that everyone gets to do because they are so sensitive to disturbance). Only 347 pairs breed in the UK.
Stone curlews have an extremely unusual courtship display – they spread their tails and wings and run around chasing each other. They are actually classified as wading birds but breed on dry, very bare habitats. In fact, one of the tasks I undertook as a volunteer at RSPB Minsmere this winter was surveying the stone curlew habitat. This took me several days of assessing the numbers of stones, vegetation height and quantity of rabbit poo in squares around the fields at Minsmere. It wasn’t the most exciting job ever, but certainly important given how unusual this species is.
As a species stone curlews suffered one of the fastest ever declines – they lost 85% of their UK population between the 1940s-1980s and fell to around 150 breeding pairs. Their recovery is largely thanks to the work of the RSPB and a lot of it has taken place in the east of England. On the Suffolk coast, Minsmere has become the epicentre of stone curlew breeding.
So how has Minsmere managed this? Well, we have created new stone curlew habitat by converting old arable land back into grassland and heathland. This is called arable reversion. We also provide things like electric fences to protect nest sites from predators.
A lot of this work requires external funding, and some of this funding comes from something called Higher Level Stewardship.
Higher Level Stewardship is a government scheme which provides money for conservation. Personally I hate acronyms and technical jargon, so let me explain. Higher Level Stewardship rewards landowners for measures they take to improve conditions for wildlife.
In part thanks to this funding, Minsmere now has five breeding pairs of stone curlews which this year successfully fledged nine chicks.
Now for the bad news (to fit in with the dramatic picture of a tractor ready to demolish a stone curlew nest at the top of this blog). Higher Level Stewardship is just one scheme which funds wildlife and conservation which is under threat from government spending cuts.
In the east of England, during the 10-year life of all our reserves’ various HLS schemes the RSPB will have received £400,000 for capital works (i.e. one-off costs such as infrastructure – gates or fences for example). HLS provides money which, as you can see, brings direct wildlife benefits on reserves and farms all across the east of England.
So what can we do? Well, we need to halt biodiversity loss, and the coalition government has committed to do this. And we need to send the government and MPs a clear message – Don’t cut our countryside. Today, you can join those who have already sent this message to their politicians. And this week also marks a special milestone. We have now received over 300, 000 signatures for our Letter to the Future campaign asking the government to take spending decisions which benefit nature, wildlife and the environment. You can sign this too.
Matt Williams, Assistant Warden, RSPB Snape
Did you get the rain over the past few weeks too? Sheets of slanting, leaden rain plummeting from a bulging grey sky. The garden was glad for it, but the watery chill certainly didn’t make it feel like August. On one of these wet afternoons, huddled inside with puddle-lakes forming outside the door, I sat peering from the window down to the courtyard below. A line of swallows were shivering on the telephone wire just outside. They were perching, hunched against the weather, one or two of them occasionally dropping down to the shed roof to sit twinkling blue and red beneath the rain.
But it looks like it might get an Indian summer through September! I woke up this morning to a strip of blue sky and a lemon-yellow sun. We’ll have to wait and see if it continues, but for the swallows I certainly hope it does. It’s an important time of year for these birds as, having got their second brood of chicks well fed and independent, both the adults and this season’s young birds will be collecting in groups ready to head off on their epic journey to Africa.
Imagine that! Chicks still chirping merrily from their cosy nests just a week ago are about to fly for a good six weeks across oceans and vast swathes of desert to reach their wintering grounds. They’ll fly for near to 200 miles a day battling all that Mother Nature has to throw at them. Yet they are tiny. A swallow can weigh less than 19 grams, about the same as a child’s paper aeroplane. Every autumn as I watch them gather together, ready for the off, it amazes me that such delicate creatures can undertake this momentous physical feat.
And that’s why we can glory in nature. The swallows don’t sit in the rain complaining, ‘why me, why does the rain always happen to me. Call this summertime!’ Instead they will just continue being swallows. Provide us with the gift of their fluting song, and the iridescence of their shining blue backs even as the rain pours down. They don’t think of themselves as brave or bold, congratulate themselves on distance travelled or berate themselves for not making it, but will just do what they do. And make the world a brighter and more incredible place as a result of their being.
Image courtesy of Kevin Simonds wildlife imagery.