One of the luxuries of our new residence is the ready availability of little ringed plovers, almost on tap. One mile from our front door lies Sevenoaks Wildfowl Reserve, and from the reserve entrance you can be within earshot of them after just a few minutes’ pleasant amble. Past the visitor’s centre, past the world’s biggest bee house, round a scrub-strewn bend where the blackcaps and chiffchaffs sing, and there you have them – doing their plover thing on the muddy shores and shingle islands of a well-established ex-gravel pit nature reserve. I tend to hear them first, shouting what sounds like ‘you-hoo’ back and forth, another anthropomorphised plover vocalisation to add to the likes of the grey plover’s ‘Here I am’. Or constantly calling during their circling display flights.
Chatty little birds, indeed. But turn to visible wavelengths of radiation, and little ringed plovers possess great subtlety. I find them easiest to spot in flight, so if I see a small darting wader, at this location very likely to be a little ringed plover, I track it carefully until it lands. Once it’s done so, the buff brown of its back closely resembles the shade of the shingle behind, and the ring around its head acts as disruptive camouflage, breaking up the bird’s outline and making it even harder to see. If I haven’t got on to it as it flies in, the game is only given away when it moves, running and pausing in characteristic plover family fashion (see video below) I won’t get into the intricacies of telling the difference between little ringed plovers and regular ringed plovers: that’s what field guides are for. In fact, in perhaps my favourite ever coursework assignment, I’ve produced my own field guide to the plover family. You may wish to seek more reliable sources in advance of my own being returned to me ready for publication…*
Anyway, if their somewhat cryptic appearance means little ringed plovers are not widely fixed in the public imagination, it wouldn’t be for lack of numbers. In fact, at last count there were over 1000 pairs. Not half bad, for any breeding wader – a family of birds boasting of few success stories in Britain of late. Little ringed plovers favour sand, mud and shingle banks on rivers and inland water bodies. An increase in gravel extraction after the war was followed by the creation of well-managed wetland reserves based around the now flooded pits – and these have proved a boon for little ringed plovers along with many other species.
In 2010 they may have finally achieved greater fame after a starring role on Springwatch**, which featured a pair’s running battle with a marauding jackdaw. Fascinating viewing and I won’t ruin your enjoyment by offering spoilers if you haven’t seen the clips. But suffice to say, one wonders how any small, ground-nesting bird could survive with an abundance of cunning foes such as Corvus monedula . In fact, I was alarmed to witness a similar event first last week here in Kent. Scanning the islands on the reserve with my binoculars, I noticed a carrion crow stalking about and poking between stones. Suddenly it stopped, head cocked, and with a few deft moves rocked an egg shape out from between the pebbles, held it still with a careful foot, hammered open the top and swallowed the contents whole. Nothing like a fresh, yolky egg. By the colouration and size it was probably a lapwing egg. Where the parents were I’ve no idea, but you can see why people react so viscerally to predation.
It’s a heart-breaking thing. The plover family are all highly entertaining birds, and it’s hard to see them lose eggs and chicks. At the same time, corvids are pretty wonderful themselves, so I also quite understand the equally visceral reactions to controlling them on behalf of our wading friends. I share both reactions. Luckily for little ringed plovers, and their fans, nest predation doesn’t seem to pose a threat at population level, even if its effects might be devastating for the odd individual pair. For other breeding waders with less favourable population trajectories, the story might be different.
But that’s enough bird-death-inspired doom. I actually find my trips to see the local plovers immensely cathartic: a superb opportunity to spend quality time with a hugely charismatic, dare I say hugely cute species as often as I like. It’s hard to stay negative with such an opportunity on my doorstep.
Here’s one in action just down the road:
*Don’t hold your breath – it’s been thirteen months since I submitted it, and I keep forgetting to ask for it back! The only copy in existence. A priceless artefact?
**Surely the high watermark of achievement for the status-seeking bird, even if I often find the programme a bit too ‘Wildlife One Show’ for my tastes. Sorry, insufferably highbrow is what you get from a blog with the word ‘Considering’ in the title!