August, 2017

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You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

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.
  • Knot: What’s in a name?

    Author Emily Kench

    The knot is a medium sized dumpy shorebird. On the face of it, it’s nothing special, and its name appears just as plain.

    Knot on The Wash, RSPB Snettisham. Photo by Andy Hay

    But what’s in a name?  Well this name is thought to be steeped in history. You may have seen a blog on this topic last week, but here is a more in depth look at the origin of the name knot.

    King Canute (or King Cnut in Danish), a strapping Viking, ruled the North Sea Empire: Denmark and Norway and eventually England in 1016. During his reign across this widespread kingdom, the successful monarch was worshipped among obsequious courtiers as if he were a God.

    To prove a point, as the result of the incessant flattery, King Canute headed to the shores of the North Sea where he set his throne. The incoming tide approached the grandiose royal seat. Used to dishing out the commands, the King ordered the intruding waves to halt; but even the King was unable to control the inevitable phenomena of the rise and fall of the waves.

    The true motivations behind the actions of King Canute are a mystery. It is unknown whether he believed he had supernatural powers and was humiliated as a consequence, or as 12th-century English historian Henry of Huntingdon suggests, Canute was reprimanding his courtiers for holding him in such high esteem. In Huntingdon’s account, as the tide powered on wetting Canute’s feet, he spoke of secular power being incomparable to the supreme power of God: his humble protest simply an attempt to prove his earthly state.

    So what does the tale of King Canute and the waves have to do with our unassuming knot?

    Well, in Scandinavia, the King’s name was pronounced ‘Knud’ or ‘Knut’, a close variation of ‘knot’. These inconspicuous waders are thought to have inherited the name through their own inability to control the tides. Gathered in huge huddles on mudflats on The Wash in west Norfolk, it’s easy to see why. Even in their masses they look wholly vulnerable in the face of the rolling tide.

    Flock of knot, photo by Andy Hay

    Like Canute, knot ‘leap’ up on an encroaching tide in an attempt to keep their feet dry, creating spectacular clouds of weaving wings. Alone, the knot looks comical, but flying in the air with its own it oozes audaciousness, blending into a tangle of knot. Finally they relinquish, finding their feet again inland, above the tideline.

    However, airborne is not how King Canute deemed them at their best. These stout knot have been termed ‘really excellent eating’ and many have claimed that they were a particular favourite of King Canute when fattened up and served with bread and milk, meaning they may have inherited their name from the King’s fondness of this food. In more recent times they remained a choice among old wildfowlers, given that they could bring down large numbers in a single shot.

    Now thankfully, knot are no longer a sought after cuisine. Instead, thousands of us flock to see the knot partake in the wader spectacle at RSPB Snettisham on the west Norfolk coast: a site that is internationally important for knot and another 15 species.

    Whilst we no longer need to dissuade people from dining on knot, we still need people to feel inspired to give knot and other nature a home.

    Knot, photo by Andy Hay

    We are currently in our final hours of crowdfunding (you can still donate until 11.59 pm on 13 August) to rebuild the hides lost at Snettisham in a storm surge back in 2013. A bigger, better, storm resilient hide will help to inspire future generations of nature lovers and make people feel passionate about protecting our wildlife here in Norfolk. To help us rebuild Snettisham hide, donate at There are still exclusive rewards on offer and you can even name a knot!


    Event Listing:

    Wader Watch at RSPB Snettisham

    Friday 22 September, 6:45 am

    Price: £7 adults £5 children (£1 discount for RSPB members)

    Booking essential: 01485 210779

    Take your place at the Wader Watch point in the company of our experienced guide and share the excitement of large numbers of waders taking to the air. Watch all the action as swirling black masses soar against the backdrop of The Wash. Move on to the hides and enjoy the chaos and drama that unfolds before your eyes as flocks of noisy birds find space in the lagoons to roost. 

  • Natterjack toadlets on the march at The Lodge

    The Lodge in Sandy, Beds, isn't just the home of the RSPB's UK and international headquarters. It's also a fantastic nature reserve with rare habitats that are home to some special wildlife.

    One of the creatures thriving in the sandy heathland and seasonal pools that have been created for it (and other wildlife) is the natterjack toad, and this month RSPB Picture Researcher Ben Andrew was able to join the wardens on their routine monitoring surveys and get these stunning photos of the toadlets on the move:


    Photos: Natterjack toadlets at RSPB The Lodge nature reserve by Ben Andrew. To see more of Ben's photos visit his website,


    Ben had this to say about photographing natterjacks: “It's not every day you get the chance to see these rare toads, let alone photograph them, which you can only do under licence because of their protected status. When I was invited to join The Lodge wardens on their monitoring surveys I didn’t have to think twice.

    “Finding and photographing the adult toads at night was really exciting, and then to see and photograph their toadlets felt very special – they are incredible little characters!”


    A good year for natterjacks

    In July, RSPB wardens and volunteers counted more than 300 of the thumbnail-sized amphibians emerging from the pools at the RSPB’s nature reserve at The Lodge, in Bedfordshire.

    RSPB Warden Lizzie Bruce said: “We’re delighted and actually a bit relieved to have counted so many toadlets this year. A cold April combined with a very dry May meant conditions were not ideal for the toads early on in the breeding season, and some of the ponds even dried out completely.

    “Rain in June filled the ponds up again and the number of toadlets we’ve seen in July and August is evidence the natterjacks were able to move quickly to spawn. Just this week we counted another 2,000 tadpoles, so there may yet be more natterjack toadlets this year.”


    Photos (Ben Andrew): Close-up of one of the natterjack toadlets Warden Lizzie Bruce and her team at The Lodge monitor and manage habitat for. The yellow stripe down the middle of its back helps distinguish it from its common toad cousins.


    Natterjack toads are one of the UK’s rarest amphibians and are only found at about 60 sites in Britain – nine in Eastern England. They live exclusively in coastal sand dunes, coastal grazing marshes and sandy heaths, where they can find the combination of bare ground or very short vegetation for hunting and shallow seasonal pools for breeding that they need to survive.

    The species’ numbers have fallen dramatically due to habitat destruction, with 70 per cent of colonies lost in the twentieth century. 

    The first natterjacks were introduced to The Lodge from Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s (NWT) Syderstone Common nature reserve in West Norfolk in the 1980s.

    In 2011 the RSPB were able to repay the favour when the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust oversaw the transfer of more than 800 tadpoles back to Norfolk to help re-establish a population of natterjacks at NWT’s Grimston Warren nature reserve, near King’s Lynn.

    In recent years they have thrived in the new ponds that have been created for them on the reserve with the help of volunteers from Tesco and grants from the Biffa Award scheme.


    Natterjacks in a nutshell:

    • Natterjacks are smaller than their cousins the common toad, with adults reaching just 6 – 7 cm in length. When they first emerge from the water after growing from tadpoles into their adult form the toadlets are no bigger than a fingernail.
    • They can be distinguished from common toads by the yellow stripe that runs down the middle of their back. Their wart and stripe pattern is like a fingerprint and unique to each individual.
    • Adults are largely nocturnal and usually heard more often than they are seen. Their mating calls can be heard from over a kilometre away. During the daytime, the toads shelter in burrows or underneath objects lying on the ground, coming out after dark to hunt beetles and other insects and invertebrates that comprise bulk of their diet.

    Nocturnal natterjacks hunting beetles and other insects at The Lodge earlier this year (Photos by Ben Andrew):


    Find out more about The Lodge nature reserve and plan a visit:

  • Turtle Doves at Titchwell Marsh

    Author: Carrie Carey

    It’s early in the morning and the gentle but unmistakable purr of a turtle dove is carried across the silence of the empty car park at RSPB Titchwell Marsh. This soulful sound conveys a whisper of hot summer days and balmy evenings and though once common, is now the long lost background of my childhood. Sadly, a bird that I was well acquainted with in my youth is now considered at risk of global extinction. It is the UK’s fastest declining bird and a cause of concern for RSPB conservationists who are taking measures to understand why numbers are crashing so rapidly.

    The turtle dove tolerates the heat yet incongruously features in the Yuletide narrative of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Far from enjoying the cold climes of England, turtle doves undertake a long distance migration to over winter in sub-Saharan Africa. They are the only surviving members of the pigeon family to do so and their 5,000 km journey is just one facet of their remarkable bid to survive against great adversity.

    Photo credit: Les Bunyan

    These birds are not picky by nature and are quite at home in lowland heath or areas of scrubby woodland. Preferred nesting sites include mature hedgerows filled with thorny brambles or hawthorn and their staple diet consists of arable plant seeds such as scarlet pimpernel, chickweed and fumitory. Unfortunately for the turtle dove, agricultural intensification has contributed to the decline of suitable hedgerow nest sites and the reduction of these arable weeds. Similar challenges face these birds in their winter habitats where periodic drought and desertification have destroyed vast swathes of land that once provided food and shelter. Perhaps more devastating though is the estimated two - four million birds that die each year as they run the gauntlet of hunters during their journey across the Mediterranean. This is particularly harrowing in Malta where turtle doves are shot in significant numbers despite being listed as an endangered species.   Shooting birds during their migratory period means there is little chance for declining populations to recover and no doubt countless numbers of juvenile birds are killed before they have a chance to breed.

    Photo credit: Les Bunyan

    The more I’ve read on the current and dire status of the turtle dove, the more inevitable extinction in my lifetime looks. However, there is hope on the horizon in the form of Operation Turtle Dove. A working partnership between the RSPB and other conservation organisations, Operation Turtle Dove supports a threefold move both in the UK and abroad to reverse the decline of these shy birds. This includes research into food resources and breeding success, working with farmers and landowners to provide dove friendly habitats and tracking selected birds to better understand migratory routes and staging points.

    Photo credit: Andy Hay

    In spring, RSPB Titchwell Marsh reserve becomes a regular refuelling and stop off point for many species of migratory birds including turtle doves. They are attracted to the area around Titchwell’s car park where scrub and hedgerow conditions are just right and they are able to feed on split grain found on the concrete pads. Each year bird lovers stand at the edge of the scrub hoping to catch a glimpse of this increasingly scarce summer nomad and this spring, expectations rose as reports of first one turtle dove, then two and then four were radioed in.  Turtle doves are well known for their apparent affection for their mate and our pairs did not disappoint. Obvious courtship displays and nesting behaviour ensued and soon the far corner of the car park became a focal point for visitors. Scope sights were set, cameras clicked and anticipation built.  Finally patience was rewarded as one pairing produced a successful brood and by mid July two fledgling turtle doves were ready to leave the nest.

    Photo credit: Andy Hay

    The parents will remain here a little longer and are a pleasure to watch. Their distinctive flight pattern is elegant and seemingly effortless as if to reflect the warm, lazy summer days they remind me of. It seems surreal that a bird so often heard in my youth is now considered a rarity and I can’t help but worry about the fate of the young siblings. Nonetheless, I remain hopeful that Operation Turtle Dove will change the fortune of what is perhaps the last of the truly migrant pigeons.

    For more information on RSPB Titchwell Marsh visit