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Sunday, 14 February 2021

Inside A Ring Of Peewits.

"It is not spring yet. Spring is being dreamed, and the dream is more wonderful and more blessed than ever was spring.
A Flock of Peewits by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Spring may be knocking on the door, but in recent days, as a result of a dominant high pressure system over Scandinavia, blistering easterly winds have buffeted Britain from the Continent. Add to this sub zero temperatures (Braemar in Scotland nudged minus 23oC) and, despite snowdrops peaking through the ground, a late blast of winter weather has enveloped the country. Most of the country has had a covering of snow, but here in Somerset despite the odd flurry we've remained snow free, the skies predominantly blue and the countryside bathed in sunshine. 

Working at home this week I've spent a lot of time looking out of the window while having the obligatory screen breaks. I've had a lot of birds come to the feeders, the colder weather always increases usage. A great spotted woodpecker was a highlight, but I love seeing the boisterous sparrows and starlings fighting over the fat balls. The resident great tits are looking fantastic in their fresh olive-blue plumage, seeing them next to blue tits on the same feeder, the size difference is obvious. I also have a resident male blackbird with no tail, which I've imaginatively called stumpy.  It is his garden and the interloper males are given short shrift if they dare to enter, post skirmish he'll tik-tik away on the shed roof in an avian triumph.

It's not just the garden where activity this week has increased. From the house I can look over two miles of small grassland fields to the National Trust's Sand Point and then the Bristol Channel beyond. Skeins of geese often use the Bristol Channel as a land-map, mute swans too, and in late afternoon gulls fly past going to roost on Flat Holm island. But it was while casually scanning this area with my binoculars  I noticed three sizeable flocks of lapwing wheeling over the Point. Each flock was maybe one to 2 hundred in number. After a few minutes the flocks merged and dropped out of sight. We're lucky here as lapwings in winter are quite numerous. A drive north up the M5 from Weston super Mare guarantees sightings of lapwings in the adjacent fields, and only a few miles away the Somerset Levels are a favoured location. But those birds seen over towards Woodspring Priory were in greater numbers than I'd seen for a long time. 

From home it is about a 2 mile walk to where I'd seen the flock, which seemed much longer in the biting wind whipping across the flat sea-blown fields around here. Only field hedges curtail these blasts which, as anyone who has stood motionless birdwatching in winter knows, I was inordinately thankful for.  At first I could not locate the lapwings. I counted about 30 mute swans, many many rooks, carrion crows and jackdaws in the fields and a solitary song thrush. Then rounding a corner I heard the first pee-wit call disappearing in the breeze, along with the birds. I'd spooked them unknowingly.


I wasn't unduly worried as lapwing are what I call a fidgety bird.  Individuals and groups will nervously fly up and down to the same spot while foraging or resting, sometimes the whole flock takes off for no reason only to return a few minutes later as if nothing had happened. But this flock was different.


Field guides will tell you that lapwing and golden plover flocks are common in winter. I've seen these many times. This flock though was something I haven't witnessed before, a mixed starling and lapwing flock. That may sound unremarkable, but what I seemed to have stumbled on was a co-operation flock. Despite the wind making it hard to focus the binoculars, I hunkered down to watch them drop back into the field.  What I observed was possibly a wonderful example of intraspecific anti-predator behaviour. Time and time again I observed the lapwings encircling the starling flock while they foraged on the grass. Not just in one field but a number around me. In the field nearest me there were maybe 200 starlings and 50 or so lapwing.  The flock would move as one organic force, lapwings leading at the front, with sentries posted to each side and the rear. And within this ring of peewits the entire flock of starlings moved as one with and at the same speed as the peewits as they foraged. The lapwings were foraging too, but at least half of them at any one time were alert, fidgety and calling what was wonderfully described by Charles Bayne "tcher-willooch-weet'. 
 
Then, and I observed this regularly, something unseen would spook the lapwings. The leading half a dozen to a dozen  would fly up in their lazy flap flap way, noisily calling. As they rose, behind them the entire starling flock alighted as one with them, the remaining lapwings following the starling chase. Being faster fliers, quickly after taking off the massed starling flock would fly past the lapwings in a fast moving murmuration, hedge hopping inches from the hedge top into a safer field, leaving the lapwings to bring up the rear as they flapped and glided back down to join them.  Once in the field previous positions would regroup. Starlings inner, lapwings outside, foraging would begin once more, with the leading edge of the feeding mass being the advance party of lapwing walking and foraging in a planned direction, followed by the starlings en-masse, with the lapwing sentries keeping watch. Time and again I'd observe lapwings take to the air, followed by the starlings and then the remaining lapwings. Not once did I see the starlings rise up first followed by the lapwings, always the lapwings first. It was beginning to get dark by the time I'd observed maybe a dozen take off and landings, and I was cold, with a walk back to warmth ahead of me. 

The following day I went back to the fields this time with a camera. If anything the wind was stronger than the day before, and that maybe accounted for the lower numbers of birds of each species in the fields, but they were there once more repeating that co-operation behaviour of lapwing sentries and starling feeders. In the course of an hour or so watching, not once, save for a lone buzzard, did I spot a sparrow hawk or other predator. The roller coaster flights of lapwings up, starlings up, starlings down, lapwings down seemingly caused by reason's unseen.  On this second visit the only difference to the lapwing behaviour was that lapwings from a field behind me flew back and forth to the fields containing foraging starlings and lapwings. Whether this was additional reinforcements or simply wandering about I didn't know. That field behind me also contained a large corvid flock, I counted over 30 carrion crow.

What I had witnessed intrigued me. Is this a common occurrence, this lapwing starling co-operation, or simply two species cooperating in winter during a cold spell. A search on the internet failed to come up with an answer, even going through research papers into interspecific flocking behaviour in winter. I decided to head into my library and spent a few hours reading through my natural history books.

What struck me in reading through these books was how often peewits or green plover as lapwings were known of old were mentioned, but how scant those references were of detailed information. It made me realise that many of these naturalists writing 50 or more years ago tuned into the beloved sound and flight of the lapwing, but it seemed that as peewits were more numerous than today these observers seemed not to register any behaviours. Hudson, Jefferies, BB, Moore, and Drabble all note the liquidity of the lapwings call, or the flap flap flight, but though only a limited selection of my own books, that was about it. 

Even that most poetic of naturalists Edward Thomas failed to provide what I'd wished for. Thomas, finding his life as a journalist unfulfilled, set out on an 8 day bicycle journey in the pursuit of self discovery and rejuvenation. Riding from Clapham in London to The Quantocks in Somerset around the Easter period between the 21st and 28th of March 1913. His book In Pursuit of Spring does reference peewits, but in passing while on Salisbury Plain 

"Next to the dead the most numerous things on the Plain are sheep, rooks, peewits and larks. The lark is most constant here  ....the pewit is equally characteristic. His Winter and twilight cry expresses for most men both the sadness and the wildness of these solitude"

Interestingly for me Richard Jefferies writing nearly 150 years ago in Wild Life In A Southern County questions why birds 'pack' as he calls it 

".. the packing of birds is very interesting, and no thoroughly satisfactory explanation of it, that I am aware of, has ever been discovered

He then goes on to discuss other species and of the peewit says " Peewits or lapwings not only pack in the winter, but may almost be said to pass the nesting time together" he goes on to discuss the lapwings avoidance behaviour by the nest in spring, but adds a beautiful description of the lapwing flight: 

"Then you have a good opportunity of observing the peculiar motion of their wings, which seem to strike simply downwards, and not also backwards, as in other birds; it is a quick jerking movement, the wing giving the impression of pausing for a tenth of a second at the finish of the stroke before it is lifted again"  

A lovely observance of the flight but not what I was after. I'd drawn a blank. The closest I got to answering my question and a naturalist describing their observance of lapwing behaviour was found in Sir John Craster's book Naturalist in Northumberland.

"[February 28th]... many more peewits are, this morning, going through their courtship antics, and I stand for some time watching and enjoying this very embodiment of the spirit of spring".... 

He later describes at length watching over 200 lapwing 'whiffle' in from the sky to join a few on the ground.

Maybe it is just my books, my limited knowledge, but I have found this whole process fascinating and it is why after over 50 years of observing wildlife there is still so much more for me to learn. Not least that the old term for lapwing can be spelt either pewit or peewit... I've gone for the latter except in quotes, after all it is the sound of a magical bird flap stop flapping the wing. 

I've not been to those fields for a couple of days but hopefully on my next visit the lapwing and starlings remain, and I'll continue to observe their antics. It certainly makes sense to combine forces, and observant eyes, to avoid predators during these winter months. Natural territorial hostility replaced by the need to simply survive. No doubt in a few weeks the lapwings will disperse, some flying a long way off. The starlings too, many back to Europe. The memory of this chance behavioural encounter  will stay with me a long while yet.

As an aside in the evening I asked Julie my wife if she would do a quick sketch of a lapwing to help illustrate my memory of this. An hour later I have the best Valentine's present a man could have.... It is not spring yet, but Spring is most definitely being dreamed.



References 

Bayne, Charles S. (1944). Exploring England. Collins, London

Thomas, Edward (2002). In Pursuit of Spring (first published 1914), Laurel. 

Jefferies, Richard (2011). Wild Life In A Southern County (first published 1879). Toller

Craster, John, Sir (1969). Naturalist In Northumberland

Quote "It is not spring yet" 

Thomas, Edward (2009). The South Country (first published 1909), Toller

Lapwing illustration by Denis Watkins-Pitchford from;

Warren, C. Henry (1940). England Is A Village, illustrated by Denis Watkins-Pitchford. Eyre and Spottiswood


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