Girton Birdwatch - December 2007
Many years ago my wife and I, on a whim, dropped in at the RSPB reserve at Fowlmere. It was impossible to move as the approach road and hedgerows were crammed with telescope-wielding twitchers. The object of their attention was a nondescript little brown bird: a Rustic bunting which should have been in northern Russia. I would not have recognised this bird had it landed on the end of my nose. It was, of course, an extremely rare visitor to these shores and hence the attraction and the excitement. In no way could it be suggested that the beauty of this bird had proved the draw. In the next field, however, was a small flock of birds which, had they been less numerous and familiar, would probably have attracted admirers from far and wide. I am referring to the Green plover, more commonly known as the Lapwing. These birds, which are regularly to be found in the fields bordering Gatehouse Lane on the road to Histon, are truly beautiful and repay closer attention. The characteristic long curved crest is probably the most distinctive feature of this apparently black and white bird but, although the Lapwing does sport a black throat and breast-band and white belly, most clearly revealed in its aerial acrobatics, more careful inspection reveals its upper parts to be a brilliant iridescent green, flecked with bronze and magenta, while its under tail coverts are cinnamon. Most people will have been entertained by its tumbling spring courtship flight, accompanied by the evocative cries which are responsible for one of its other 'country' names: 'pee-wit, pee-wit'. Mind you, its more familiar name also derives from the throbbing, 'lapping' sounds made by its wings as it plunges, rolls and twists - seemingly out of control - over its territory and, presumably, part of its effort to impress a potential mate.
Lapwings are to be found in a wide variety of habitats: damp meadows, bogs, coastal pasture, wet heath, fields and farmland. Their benign association with grassland, as that of the Skylark, has been described by Cocker and Maby as 'a hymn to Neolithic man's agricultural triumph'. However, whereas the Skylark and its song have become synonymous with joy, for hundreds of years the lapwing was viewed very differently. Chaucer referred to 'the false lapwynge, ful of trecherye'; Caxton, in the 15th century, called it 'the bird falsest of all', while in the 17th century prostitutes and deceitful women were known as 'plovers'. This pejorative view of the Lapwing survives to this day, for while the collective noun for larks is an 'exaltation' that for lapwings is a 'deceit'. Cocker and Maby put this long history of reproach down to the bird's distraction display in defence of its eggs and young, where it will drag its wings along the ground as if injured, or simply call hysterically to lure away potential predators. Lapwing eggs were popular as food and Cocker and Maby suggest it was 'deeply unfair' of our ancestors to condemn the bird for its efforts to protect them.
Vast numbers of eggs once went for food, as did the carcasses of the birds themselves but, while Lapwing eggs may still be collected under licence (the open season ending on 15th April to allow clutches to be replaced), this is now an exceptional practice. Lapwing numbers have declined dramatically over recent years, with a virtual halving of breeding numbers occurring in just eleven years. The scale of this decline is partly masked by a large influx of continental birds during the winter but it is widely recognised that modern farming methods have not been kind to Lapwings; the loss of mixed farming, increased agrochemical use and the switch from spring to autumn sowing of cereals, have all had a detrimental effect. Moreover, the Lapwing, as a ground-nesting bird has always been vulnerable to predators something which Robin Page, who farms at Barton, tends, not surprisingly, to accord greater explanatory weight than insensitive farming practices, despite his own commendable record in this regard.
The Fieldfares are arriving back on the Rec.; the odd couple of the first week of November up to twenty by the second. No Redwings yet, although they usually arrive first. A Kingfisher has been seen along the Beck brook (P.G.), always something to celebrate. Snow buntings were at Cottenham on 12th November, while Waxwings have been observed in Cambridge itself. Snow buntings look like albino sparrows: the breeding male has a white head and underside, black wings with large white patches and a black bill. The female has less bright plumage and browner upperparts. The male in winter, when we are most likely to see it, has a pale brown back and brownish cap and cheek but, although not appearing so bright as in summer, when a winter group takes wing, flickering and drifting, the white tail and wing markings are reminiscent of a blizzard of snowflakes.