In the Baby Routes household we have a new favourite bird. Well, perhaps a second favourite maybe – I think Roo would still drop anything to go and see the puffins again and the photos we took last year of those comic little birds on Skomer never fail to brighten up my day. This new bird though is showy and silly in equal measure. It can put on an aerial display of dazzling and breathtaking flying like few other birds all whilst making a very silly noise indeed and sporting some very fancy if impractical head feathers. Our new favourite bird is a lapwing.
Our fascination with the lapwing came before we knew its name. On our favourite local walk there are several wide, far reaching fields used for arable farming. Last year on our walk in spring we noticed a few strange birds diving and swooping above the emerging crops below. They made a long whistling noise and tumbled and rolled about in the air in a way you sometimes see old fashioned planes do at fairground exhibitions. I had never really seen birds so obviously flying for the sheer joy of it before and it made me laugh with their exuberance and zest for life. Roo was fascinated by their antics too. I forgot to look them up when we got back though. A few weeks later and they were gone again.
This year, they were back in force and we were excited to see our new friends again. This year, we remembered to bring binoculars and a bird book. This year we visited the Henley River and Rowing Museum and found a whole display dedicated to our new visitors. This year our birds got a name and we learnt about lapwings. We returned many times over the middle weeks of spring to see them larking about in the sky. Sometimes we were sure they were going to crash as they plummeted head-first towards the ground. They are a plump kind of bird – not the kind you would expect to see suited to tightly controlled flying manouvers. Every time though they of course landed safely or looped back up again to start their show of aerobatics all over again.
Lapwings are wading birds so we were surprised to find them on our upland farm fields. We are only a couple of kilometers from the River Thames and its lush river basin though so I suppose they didn’t have far to come. They like arable farmland and rough pasture land during the breeding season which explains why they took up residence in our fields of fresh spring crops. The showy flights are all in the aid of attracting a mate and competing with their rival suitors, as is the daft ‘peewit’ whistling sound they make – a sound so distinctive that it has become a common name for the lapwing in its own right. Roo has added the peewit whistle to her growing repertoire of bird songs and has spent a good deal of spring ‘peewitting’ around the the house. Her little sister delighted in shouting ‘Ba ba’ whenever we saw the lapwings – lurching out of her back carrier to crane her head upwards to track them above. I have spent a lot of time trying to master sport mode on the camera to catch them flying but with little luck.
Then, just a few weeks later, I saw the tractor out spraying the crops in the lapwings’ field. It was driving right over their favourite patch for resting in between flight displays. That afternoon we went back to look for them. We went the next day too and the next. They had gone. We were all sorry they were no longer there to brighten up our walks and wondered what had become of them.
I don’t know it it was the tractor’s disturbance that caused the lapwings to move on or if it was just time. They are a migratory bird so perhaps the two events were unrelated? They are however red list status birds which means they have suffered serious decline in population and are of the highest conservation priority. I can’t help thinking that disturbing them during their breeding season is not going to have helped their cause. Equally, though I am not a farmer, I do appreciate that farmers are under pressures enough to make the most of every inch of their land as well as being vital for the preservation of our rural landscapes. A solution would surely have to focus on both birds and reducing pressures on farmers so they have the flexibility to support wildlife. I have no idea what that solution would be.
Two weekends ago my husband and I took a rare trip without the girls to Holland. After exploring the tulips in the Keukenhof, we set off to explore the sand dunes of the Zuid-Kennemerland National Park. Descending to a small inland lake, we heard a familiar, unmistakeable cry – there were our lapwings, diving and dancing in the sky as if they knew we were coming. They looked a lot more at home in amongst the reed beds and swooping over the water in the company of cormorants and herons. With the nearby expanse of tulip fields, no doubt tucked away here they have the best of both worlds. We got to see them a lot closer than at home. We were finally able to appreciate the petrol green sheen that covers what seem to be at first sight feathers of purely black and white. The camera came out and our photographic attempts this time were much more successful than at home.
I do hope our lapwings at home come back again next year. Now whenever I see them it will remind me of that peaceful lake and its unexpected inhabitants on our trip to Holland. I only wish the girls had been able to see them there too.