March, 2012

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Bugs, Birds and Beasts in the East

All of our up to date fun and frolics in the East from office antics to great conservation stories and those magical connections with nature.
  • First sounds of Spring

    Blogger: Steve Rowland, Public Affairs Manager

    Spring seemed a long way off last week as I took my lunchtime walk through the woods, the leaves on the trees were yet to unfurl, the ground was bare and covered in a mulch of last autumns dead leaves, and a light, cold wintry rain drizzled down.

    And yet I realised that my mind had picked up on the subtle changes in the quality of light and drawing out of the days. I became aware of a slight tightness in my ears, an unconscious straining and heightened alertness to the bird song around me. And I thought that after more Springs as a birder than I care to remember, my brain was quietly and unobtrusively saying to my ears to be alert for couple of unremarkable notes of bird song one up followed repetitively by another down, up and down in short bursts, from a bird that takes its name from these two notes of song, the chiff chaff.  (photo below).

    Naming a bird after the sound it makes is known as onomatopoeia and two other species that occur in the UK the cuckoo and the kittiwake also take their names from their calls.

    I will acknowledge here that chiff chaffs are not blessed with the most captivating of names or musical of songs. But for me they compensate for that with the charisma that comes from being the first of our returning migrants to fill our bare Spring woods with their song, perhaps a month before the other returning warblers have got back from a winter spent south of the Sahara.

    Chiff chaffs like many of our other warblers, might at a glance appear a little drab and indistinct. In particular at first you might easily confuse a chiff chaff with its close relative the willow warbler.  (photo below).

    A rough guide to telling them apart is that a willow warblers legs are a light flesh colour whilst a chiff chaffs are black and a chiff chaffs has a more olive coloured plumage (being a birder you carry a veritable colour palette in your head to describe shades of green and brown feathers).

    But the surest way to tell these cousins apart is to listen to them singing. Compared to the chiff chaffs repetitive two notes, willow warblers have a to my mind a much nicer song, a lovely tinkling sound that seems to gently descend a set of musical scales before being hauled by the bird back to the top only to descend down them once more.

    Willow warblers arrive from their wintering grounds in Africa a little later in the spring than chiff chaffs which tend to spend the winter in the Mediterranean. So my brain wasn't tipping my ears off to listen out for a willow warbler practicing its scales, but for that starting gun of the season, a simple two note Chiff then Chaff song that would light up the woods and put a smile on my face, a sign of the end of winter and the beginning of natures headlong rush into spring.

    I didn’t hear a chiff chaff last week but I’ll be out again for a lunchtime walk in the woods this week, listening carefully for those two notes. If you have some time to spare over the next week or so why don’t you go out and see if you can hear a chiff chaff and then tell us here.

    Photos credit John Bridges (

  • Sorry but I get a bit confused: Which wader is which?

    Blogger: Adam Murray, Communications Officer

    Last June you may have remembered my Swift, Swallows & House martins - I am a bit clueless blog post, well just as think I have nailed some of my bird ID skills I recently went on my hols to Osea Island.

    We went as a family with my brother and his gang and spent the time walking the island when the causeway (as seen on the Woman in Black movie) was covered by the tide. The island was a perfect tonic as there were no modern day distractions that seem to fill our free time usually. This meant that we had an excuse of not doing very much at all – just what I needed after the crazy hustle bustle of the RSPB Eastern Region office in Norwich.

    Each day we would spend many hours in wellies walking the island. In the interior we spotted dancing flocks of skylarks, eyeing foxes in the distance and then the adventurers inside us would walk alongside the beaches and salt marshes to circumnavigate our little piece of Essex.  If we were lucky enough to get the tides right we would see vast numbers of birds coming into feed or queuing up ready for the seafood frenzy. The rest of my family were happy to spot a “funny looking goose” or distinctive oyster catcher with their carrot beaks. I on the other hand, trained zoologist and bitten by the RSPB bug, realised that I wasn’t just seeing a few species of animals out there on the mud flats but dozens – all ever so slightly different. However, this is my question to you – how on earth are you supposed to tell the difference? I am now going to give it a go. The keen ones amongst you, feel free to correct me, I won’t take it personally ;)

      Dunlin: Little fella, grey wings, white belly, slightly curved beak 

     Turnstone: Little, black wings, white belly, red legs

     Common sandpiper: brown body, straight beak, black eye stripe

     Curlew sandpiper: if you squidged the two sandpipers together

     Green sandpiper: dark, white bellied sandpiper that is not green

     Grey plover: a more speckly version of a turnstone

     Curlew: This one I get, bendy beak and big as a chicken!

     Redshank: Medium sized, red legs and red beak near face

      Spotted redshank: red legs, black top beak, red lower beak

    So, can you see why I was confused. It doesn't help that when I was reading the information on my RSPB i-phone app it told me that these are the winter plumages of these birds - so as new species come in for the summer I will have to learn this all over again. I did however figure out that the bird call I has associated with the wilds of southern Ireland ( a previous family holiday) was not the charismatic oyster catcher but the close neighbours the curlew.

    I guess the beauty of this whole thing is now, once I get my eye in, I realise how many different species find the eerie and beautiful Essex coast  a perfect tonic, just what they need.

  • Norwich tummies are feeling full for a good cause

    Blogger: Gena Correale-Wardle, Community Fundraising Officer

    Do you remember in January when I blogged about the great partnership the RSPB had with Dozen Artisan Bakery and Pulse Cafe Bar, two great independent eateries in Norwich? I bet you’ve been waiting with baited breath to see how we got on....

    Well, today I went to see the lovely manager of Pulse, Helen, as she presented us with a great big cheque (literally – see the photo!) for £86.50. That equates to 173 starters, mains and desserts eaten in aid of the RSPB. Dozen Artisan Bakery sold their field loaves for nature too – another £91 and 91 satisfied tummies and smiles on faces! Wouldn’t it be nice if all fundraising could be that easy?!

    The lovely people at both outlets also hosted pin badge boxes and gave out lots of leaflets to promote Big Garden Birdwatch, raising awareness of the project as well as raising even more money (over £40) through pin badge donations. A win-win all round!

    We are really glad to work with such great local, independent businesses in the area and hope we can do more with them in future. We are always looking for ways to get businesses involved throughout the whole of the Eastern England region so if you have any links or want to promote your business and raise money for nature in the process, do get in touch!

    The money raised will help the RSPB save and protect wildlife supporting schools and families through field teaching programmes and schools visits as well as directly managing habitats for wildlife at our amazing nature reserves.

    Thank you to all of you who ate great food and saved nature at the same time. Here’s to more fab little initiatives like this in the future! Email me at or call me on 01603 697521.