The beautiful courtship of one of Wales' rarest birds; A twitcher's tale of a species fighting back.
HE musical springtime call of a lapwing as it spectacularly sweeps through the air is one of the most distinctive sights and sounds of the British countryside. Located in a corner of north east Wales, alongside the River Dee at Saltney, Beeches Farm has long supported a thriving population of around 50 pairs of breeding lapwings.
On this 400-acre farm, the combination of undisturbed countryside, the dampness of some fields and, perhaps most importantly, the mixed pattern of farming methods, attracts large numbers of lapwings. It is one of the largest breeding sites in Wales.
RSPB Cymru regularly monitors the farm as part of its Lapwing Recovery Project, alongside postgraduate students from Bath University who are investigating reasons for the bird's alarming decline in Wales.
Here, nesting sites are well away from public roads, minimising the possibility of disturbance during the breeding season. Conscious of this, last March I introduced a small hide in a five-hectare site affectionately named 'Tank Field' due to the presence of a large galvanised water tank, fed from a natural spring.
The land had been left in stubble and, during my initial sessions in the hide, I observed some fascinating courtship behaviour: several adult males would set up breeding territories by performing spectacular visual and highly vocal song-flights.
I also observed the male's typical 'scrape-display' in which the bird, by gently scraping the ground with his body, would hollow out a potential nest site for prospective females.
These nest scrapes were loosely lined with plant material, sited out in the open and totally unconcealed. However the beautiful brown and olive eggs, neatly tucked into a nest of similar colouration, did form an effective camouflage.
In early April, the farmer decided to prepare Tank Field for a crop of unsprayed spring barley.
But before he began, every lapwing nest was individually 'marked' with a steel stake.
I found it remarkable that even during this busy period, the farmer still found time to embrace a sensitive approach to the lapwings' welfare.
In mid April, the field was fertilised, then ploughed, rolled and harrowed. During each of these stages, the farmer would work around each marked nest site, allowing the incubating birds to quietly leave their nests as tractors approached and return after vehicles had passed by.
Eventually, in late April, I arranged to be present as Tank Field was to be drilled with spring barley seed.
Once again, I was amazed at the way both farmer and lapwing seemed to understand each other. At this stage, I felt confident the birds would readily accept the closer introduction of my small hide, from where I could watch the female lapwing cautiously approach her clutch of eggs.
Once she was satisfied there was no apparent danger, she would fly low towards the nest, landing some distance away before briskly walking towards the nest, occasionally stopping and pretending to feed.
Sometimes she would also utter a wheezy 'pee-wit' call - perhaps reassuring her mate, who would always be standing nearby.
During my first photographic session, I watched the female lapwing gradually approach her nest, her short, thin legs daintily picking out a zigzag route across the slightly undulating terrain.
Hardly daring to breathe and convinced that she could hear the pounding of my heart, I carefully tracked her approach through my camera's viewfinder.
The sound of the camera's shutter mechanism stopped her progress momentarily as she peered with large dark eyes at the hide. I chanced another exposure, as she stood motionless, then another exposure, and another....
Over the course of the next two weeks or so, I spent many long and productive photographic hours in the hide, during which I observed some fascinating and intimate behaviour. At one point, there were 11 pairs of lapwings nesting in Tank Field. As female birds incubated clutches of eggs, males would constantly indulge in breathtaking courtship aerial dances.
Danger did threaten regularly, mainly in the form of marauding carrion crows. Once alerted, male birds scattered around the field, and very occasionally one or two incubating females would collectively attempt to chase the crows away, calling with harsh two-syllabled cries.
A young solitary buzzard, which had nested nearby, was also harried by male lapwings . On each occasion he simply gathered the breeze with wide outspread wings to soar away from the attentions of mobbing lapwings.
Incubating females, meanwhile, would utter short, plaintive whistles and gently raise their crests to encourage their protective mates.
When males took flight, I distinctly heard the loud flapping of their wings. It reminded me of the sharp crack heard when a wood pigeon beats its wings (and may explain how the name 'lapwing' may be derived from 'flapwing', the old countryside name given to the bird).
As the days stretched on, the emerging barley provided concealment for sitting females, who soldiered on through all manner of weather, always facing the open centre area of the field. Towards the end of May, the eggs hatched into four tiny buffish-brown chicks that were fully alert and able to feed right from hatching. Sadly none of the four chicks survived through their first night. Their tiny decapitated bodies were discovered littered near the nest the next morning - possibly the result of a fox. Unfortunately a similar high mortality rate in newly hatched chicks was noted elsewhere on the farm. It would appear that the main risk to lapwing eggs and chicks is predation - not farm management, as commonly supposed. I now hope that the lapwings return to nest in similar high numbers this spring so that I can continue to observe this charming farmland speciesMichael Steciuk is an amateur nature and landscape photographer who works at Airbus in Broughton, Deeside. He holds schedule one licences, issued by the Countryside Council for Wales, to photograph little terns at Gronant, Flintshire, and peregrine falcons at South Stack, Anglesey
Michael Steciuk at his bird hide on Beeches Farm, Saltney; One of Michael Steciuk's striking snaps of the endangered lapwing at one of the largest breeding sites in Wales
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|Publication:||Daily Post (Liverpool, England)|
|Date:||Mar 3, 2005|
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