BTO: Farmland wader does well in Suffolk

Lapwing with chick ANL-140425-120944001
Lapwing with chick ANL-140425-120944001
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The sandy, free draining soils of Breckland support a mix of arable farmland and plantation woodland, together with other habitat types. On spring mornings, some of the arable plots echo with the wild calls of breeding lapwing, as birds lift in alarm to screech and dive at would-be intruders.

Human observers, predatory crows and passing pheasants are all treated in a similar manner, the lapwing pair attempting to mob and distract, moving the focus away from their nest and the eggs contained within.

The lapwing is one of our most familiar waders and its loosely flapping flocks are a real feature of winter, both inland and along our coastal grazing marshes.

Seen close up it is immediately apparent that the lapwing is a beautiful bird. The dark green plumage of the upper body and wings, carrying the purple and green iridescence of oil on water, contrasts with the white underparts. The black and white face, with its steep forehead, is topped by a breeding season plume that adds a certain elegance to this familiar bird.

The lapwing’s changing fortunes have seen it lost as a regular breeding species from across much of south-west England, west Wales and western Scotland. Even with these losses, it remains our most widespread breeding wader, with populations in the west of Suffolk some of the most buoyant in the country. Changing agricultural practices, particularly within pastoral areas, coupled at some sites by increased levels of predation, are thought to be behind the decline.

To see and hear so many lapwings locally, clearly nesting on those fields set-aside from production for a year or more, is particularly heartening.

A careful approach, or simply parking the car on the edge of such a field, will allow you to watch breeding lapwing without disturbing them. More often than not it is possible to spot the nesting females, sat quietly in the shallow nesting scrape that they have created. Within this, there will be a clutch of two to five eggs (four is usual), each beautifully camouflaged to blend in with the bare ground on which they have been placed. Lapwing chicks leave the nest soon after hatching, although if the eggs hatch late in the day then the chicks may remain in the nest overnight to be brooded by the female. Leaving the nest so soon after hatching is thought to reduce the chances of the brood being taken by a predator.

Chicks that have left the nest forage close to their parents but will drop to the ground and ‘freeze’ if one or other of the parents issues an alarm call. Like the eggs, they are beautifully camouflaged and difficult for a searching predator to pick out. The family party will often move into other fields, where feeding opportunities for the young are better, and may be seen foraging together.