Nature Notes for August with Malcolm Cox

Spoonbill
Spoonbill
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I am beginning this month’s notes with an update on last month’s. For some reason July’s notes on swifts produced more interest than anything I have scribbled in this column. For the several people who chatted or phoned then here is a rather sad note. Latest information from RSPB suggests a 38% loss of swift nest sites over the last couple of years. We can only hope for a reversal by the time next year’s data are available.

My visits to Titchwell are less frequent these days, it is a 60 mile round trip and I have reached the stage where every hour in a motor car reminds me that I ought to be strolling or simply sitting in the garden observing what is right under my nose. However, a recent visit was its usual reward. As August begins many wading birds are already back from their northerly breeding grounds. Many will be failed breeders, some still in their summer plumage.

Little Egret

Little Egret

There was much excitement in June when a great knot was identified among a large flock of knot, avid “twitchers” will have rushed to add such a rare tick to their list. Sadly I did not get to see this visitor from Asia myself. My days of chasing after those “vagrants” are long since passed. When I checked out Titchwell in mid July on yet another cool and gloomy day however there was a tiny plover that for me will always lift spirits.

Many naturalists of my generation will have been inspired by works of fact and fiction from a previous century, yes the 20th! I wonder how many folk reading these notes will have read the work of T H White (Goshawks), J A Baker (The Peregrine), Henry Williamson (Salar the Salmon, Tarka the Otter) and Gavin Maxwell (Ring of Bright Water).

Hopefully many will remember Kenneth Allsop a 60’s TV presenter whose wonderful “Adventure Lit Their Star” transported me from urban drabness to the vistas imagined during bird migration, the journey undertaken annually by the little ringed plover. This diminutive wader was once fairly common in the British Isles. It favours quiet shingle habitats and these days often finds security in industrial quarries and such like. These birds are immaculate in their summer livery of white, brown and black. At first easily confused with its cousin the ringed plover, a distinct yellow eye-ring (you may need a telescope view) will guarantee identification. These birds winter mainly in warmer climes than Britain but like many species may be less likely to journey too far south if our winters continue to moderate with climate change. Which I guess leads me nicely to another couple of Titchwell’s gems on the day of my visit, both of these snow white.

It is now about four decades since little egrets first began to breed on Dorset’s Brownsea Island. Now these graceful white herons are fairly widespread. We still think of warm southern Europe when we see these birds yet they are not only increasing their breeding range but casually over winter. The other gem I refer to is the exotic looking spoonbill. The individual we saw at Titchwell was an immature, the product of a UK breeding pair?, probably a bit hopeful, how enormous this one looked alongside other waders such as godwits some still in lovely russet breeding plumage.

Little ringed plover

Little ringed plover

I always enjoy reading the bi-monthly notes from Titchwell and the mid July offering from Paul Roney triggered a distant memory. A recent photo in the Lynn News showed Titchwell volunteers with their bagsful of litter, (if you are reading this Paul you will be pleased to note that this time I have identified you as Paul not Mark – apologies for an earlier slip). While litter gathering on the island of Handa many years ago a friend and I found an unopened can of coke. Most of the print had worn off the can, heaven knows how long it had rolled along in the ocean. It was a hot and we were very thirsty. We pulled the ring and heard that familiar bubbly fizz. The contents were perfectly drinkable. Sadly there was no rum and ice to accompany the brew. I have another explosive (literally) anecdote from the same occasion but as I am running out of column space it will have to wait.

I am concluding the with the Kenneth Allsop story, a tragic end. Kenneth was in constant pain from wartime injury. This eventually overwhelmed him and in a fit of desperation it seems likely that he ended his own life with an overdose of medication. At that time it was like losing an old friend and even now as I write these notes I can still see his face in grainy monochrome staring out from a BBC studio. I like to think that these notes are occasionally read by younger viewers – yes maybe deluding myself but if they are, track down a copy of “Adventure Lit Their Star” and briefly live the life of those tiny plovers. Then go to Titchwell and see the real thing.