A Deceit of Lapwing – The Seven Whistlers
Forty or fifty years ago the Lapwing, Peewit, or Green Plover, was a regular nesting bird in Britain but ‘advances’ in agricultural practices – land drainage and general intensification – have, lamentably, driven it from traditional breeding grounds.
In my boyhood I fondly remember the springtime sight and sound of peewits over a particular field near Marksbury, on my way to school in Keynsham. Now many of us have to journey some distance to see one of the Nations favourite birds; to delight at their tumbling, acrobatic flight – a ‘flickering chequerboard’ – wheezing out their peewit call during the spring months and to see large winter flocks gathering together, nearly always on the same fields each year, all hunkered down and facing into the strong, chilling northerly breeze.
I am lucky here in North Wales: The RSPB are managing three local sites to provide ideal habitat for the existing nesting lapwings and to increase the current numbers of breeding pairs.
Morfa Dinlle – is 117 ha of grazed pasture protected by flood defence walls. It includes wet pasture with permanent pools and shallow seasonal pools, rushy pasture, and some higher ground. The site is on a low-lying peninsula and forms part of a system of grazing marsh and sand dunes extending north towards Anglesey from the mainland, enclosing Foryd Bay, an area of saltmarsh that is designated as SSSI and a Local Nature Reserve. The seaward side of the peninsula has a popular beach, in a picturesque setting with the backdrop of Snowdonia to the east.
Cors Ddyga lies within one of the largest lowland wetlands in Wales. The grassland supports one of Wales’ few lapwing colonies and resounds to the song of Lapwing and skylark in spring.
A Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), it’s one of just three in Wales designated for the richness of its aquatic invertebrates, such as dragonflies and water beetles.
The reedbeds are home to otters, water voles and wetland birds: and it is one of the few places in Wales to see marsh harriers. In spring they echo to the buzz of warblers newly arrived from Africa alongside spectacular displays of wetland flowers.
As summer approaches you can spot ducklings, goslings and water plants, like the rare water violet. If you look carefully in autumn you may see an otter’s tunnel or some of its ‘spraint’ (poo). And as it gets colder in winter you might be lucky enough to see a secretive bittern raising its head from the vegetation, a flock of starlings moving at dusk or to hear the sharp squeal of a water rail.
The reed-fringed lakes of Valley Wetlands give you the opportunity to see wildfowl all year round. Look out for tufted ducks, pochards, shovelers, gadwalls and grebes which all breed here. And if you come in winter, you’ll also see wigeons and goldeneyes.
Spring and early summer are also good times to visit, when the reedbeds come alive with reed and sedge warblers. You might be lucky to catch a glimpse of other reedbed birds like water rails, marsh harriers and Cetti’s warblers. Lapwing too.
The Dee Estuary also holds quite sizeable flocks in Winter with a few remaining to breed in Spring.
Graham Appleton in his blog Wader Tales has summarised recent research into the management of habitat for Lapwing:
Can a mosaic of habitats boost hatching success in grassland-breeding Lapwings? Lapwings are becoming more and more restricted in their distribution within the United Kingdom, with an increasing proportion dependent on a small number of lowland wet grassland sites, particularly nature reserves.
Richard Jefferies wrote prosaically about the ‘Haunts of the Lapwing’, in two short essays ‘Winter’ and ‘Spring’.
In this first part, he stumbles across some lapwings braving the dreadful weather and the sight of them instantly lifts his spirits. In that moment he finds them to be ‘the only things of life that save the earth from utter loneliness’.
“HAUNTS OF THE LAPWING, part 1: Winter”
“Coming like a white wall the rain reaches me, and in an instant everything is gone from sight that is more than ten yards distant. The narrow upland road is beaten to a darker hue, and two runnels of water rush along at the sides, where, when the chalk-laden streamlets dry, blue splinters of flint will be exposed in the channels. For a moment the air seems driven away by the sudden pressure, and I catch my breath and stand still with one shoulder forward to receive the blow. Hiss, the land shudders under the cold onslaught; hiss, and on the blast goes, and the sound with it, for the very fury of the rain, after the first second, drowns its own noise. There is not a single creature visible, the low and stunted hedgerows, bare of leaf, could conceal nothing; the rain passes straight through to the ground. Crooked and gnarled, the bushes are locked together as if in no other way could they hold themselves against the gales. Such little grass as there is on the mounds is thin and short, and could not hide a mouse. There is no finch, sparrow, thrush, blackbird. As the wave of rain passes over and leaves a hollow between the waters, that which has gone and that to come, the ploughed lands on either side are seen to be equally bare. In furrows full of water, a hare would not sit, nor partridge run; the larks, the patient larks which endure almost everything, even they have gone. Furrow on furrow with flints dotted on their slopes, and chalk lumps, that is all. The cold earth gives no sweet petal of flower, nor can any bud of thought or bloom of imagination start forth in the mind. But step by step, forcing a way through the rain and over the ridge, I find a small and stunted copse down in the next hollow. It is rather a wide hedge than a copse, and stands by the road in the corner of a field. The boughs are bare; still they break the storm, and it is a relief to wait a while there and rest. After a minute or so the eye gets accustomed to the branches and finds a line of sight through the narrow end of the copse. Within twenty yards—just outside the copse—there are a number of lapwings, dispersed about the furrows. One runs a few feet forward and picks something from the ground; another runs in the same manner to one side; a third rushes in still a third direction. Their crests, their green-tinted wings, and white breasts are not disarranged by the torrent. Something in the style of the birds recalls the wagtail, though they are so much larger. Beyond these are half a dozen more, and in a straggling line others extend out into the field. They have found some slight shelter here from the sweeping of the rain and wind, and are not obliged to face it as in the open. Minutely searching every clod they gather their food in imperceptible items from the surface.
Sodden leaves lie in the furrows along the side of the copse; broken and decaying burdocks still uphold their jagged stems, but will be soaked away by degrees; dank grasses droop outwards! the red seed of a dock is all that remains of the berries and fruit, the seeds and grain of autumn. Like the hedge, the copse is vacant. Nothing moves within, watch as carefully as I may. The boughs are blackened by wet and would touch cold. From the grasses to the branches there is nothing any one would like to handle, and I stand apart even from the bush that keeps away the rain. The green plovers are the only things of life that save the earth from utter loneliness. Heavily as the rain may fall, cold as the saturated wind may blow, the plovers remind us of the beauty of shape, colour, and animation. They seem too slender to withstand the blast—they should have gone with the swallows—too delicate for these rude hours; yet they alone face them.
Once more the wave of rain has passed, and yonder the hills appear; these are but uplands. The nearest and highest has a green rampart, visible for a moment against the dark sky, and then again wrapped in a toga of misty cloud. So the chilled Roman drew his toga around him in ancient days as from that spot he looked wistfully southwards and thought of Italy. Wee-ah-wee! Some chance movement has been noticed by the nearest bird, and away they go at once as if with the same wings, sweeping overhead, then to the right, then to the left, and then back again, till at last lost in the coming shower. After they have thus vibrated to and fro long enough, like a pendulum coming to rest, they will alight in the open field on the ridge behind. There in drilled ranks, well closed together, all facing the same way, they will stand for hours. Let us go also and let the shower conceal them. Another time my path leads over the hills.
It is afternoon, which in winter is evening. The sward of the down is dry under foot, but hard, and does not lift the instep with the springy feel of summer. The sky is gone, it is not clouded, it is swathed in gloom. Upwards the still air thickens, and there is no arch or vault of heaven. Formless and vague, it seems some vast shadow descending. The sun has disappeared, and the light there still is, is left in the atmosphere enclosed by the gloomy mist as pools are left by a receding tide. Through the sand the water slips, and through the mist the light glides away. Nearer comes the formless shadow and the visible earth grows smaller. The path has faded, and there are no means on the open downs of knowing whether the direction pursued is right or wrong, till a boulder (which is a landmark) is perceived. Thence the way is down the slope, the last and limit of the hills there. It is a rough descent, the paths worn by sheep may at any moment cause a stumble. At the foot is a waggon-track beside a low hedge, enclosing the first arable field. The hedge is a guide, but the ruts are deep, and it still needs slow and careful walking. Wee-ah-wee! Up from the dusky surface of the arable field springs a plover, and the notes are immediately repeated by another. They can just be seen as darker bodies against the shadow as they fly overhead. Wee-ah-wee! The sound grows fainter as they fetch a longer circle in the gloom.
There is another winter resort of plovers in the valley where a barren waste was ploughed some years ago. A few furze bushes still stand in the hedges about it, and the corners are full of rushes. Not all the grubbing of furze and bushes, the deep ploughing and draining, has succeeded in rendering the place fertile like the adjacent fields. The character of a marsh adheres to it still. So long as there is a crop, the lapwings keep away, but as soon as the ploughs turn up the ground in autumn they return. The place lies low, and level with the waters in the ponds and streamlets. A mist hangs about it in the evening, and even when there is none, there is a distinct difference in the atmosphere while passing it. From their hereditary home the lapwings cannot be entirely driven away. Out of the mist comes their plaintive cry; they are hidden, and their exact locality is not to be discovered. Where winter rules most ruthlessly, where darkness is deepest in daylight, there the slender plovers stay undaunted.”
“HAUNTS OF THE LAPWING, part 2: Spring ”
“A soft sound of water moving among thousands of grass-blades – to the hearing it is as the sweetness of spring air to the scent. It is so faint and so diffused that the exact spot whence it issues cannot be discerned, yet it is distinct, and my footsteps are slower as I listen. Yonder, in the corners of the mead, the atmosphere is full of some ethereal vapour. The sunshine stays in the air there, as if the green hedges held the wind from brushing it away. Low and plaintive come the notes of a lapwing; the same notes, but tender with love…
From the bushes by the stile on the left hand, which I have just passed, follows the long whistle of a nightingale. His nest is near; he sings night and day. Had I waited on the stile, in a few minutes, becoming used to my presence, he would have made the hawthorn vibrate, so powerful in his voice when heard close at hand. There is not another nightingale along this path for at least a mile, though it crosses meadows and runs by hedges to all appearance equally suitable; but nightingales will not pass their limits; they seem to have a marked-out range as strictly defined as the lines of a geological map. They will not go over to the next hedge – hardly into the field on one side of a favourite spot, nor a yard farther along the mound. Opposite the oak is a low fence of serrated green. Just projecting above the edge of a brook, fast-growing flags have thrust up their bayonet-tips. Beneath their stalks are so thick in the shallow places that a pike can scarcely push a way between them. Over the brook stand some high maple trees; to their thick foliage wood-pigeons come. The entrance to a coomb, the widening mouth of a valley, is beyond, with copses on the slopes.
Again the plover’s notes; this time in the field immediately behind; repeated, too, in the field on the right hand. One comes over, and as he flies he jerks a wing upwards and partly turns on his side in the air, rolling like a vessel in a swell. He seems to beat the air sideways, as if against a wall, not downwards. This habit makes his course appear so uncertain; he may go there, or yonder, or in a third direction, more undecided than a startled snipe. Is there a little vanity in that wanton flight? Is there a little consciousness of the spring-freshened colours of his plumage, and pride in the dainty touch of his wings on the sweet wind? His love is watching his wayward course. He prolongs it. He has but a few yards to fly to reach the well-known feeding-ground by the brook where the grass is short; perhaps it has been eaten off by sheep. It is a straight and easy line as a starling would fly. The plover thinks nothing of a straight line; he winds first with the course of the hedge, then rises aslant, uttering his cry, wheels, and returns; now this way, direct at me, as if his object was to display his snowy breast; suddenly rising aslant again, he wheels once more, and goes right away from his object over above the field whence he came. Another moment and he returns; and so to and fro, and round and round, till with a sidelong, unexpected sweep he alights by the brook. He stands a minute, then utters his cry, and runs a yard or so forward. In a little while a second plover arrives from the field behind. He too dances a maze in the air before he settles. Soon a third joins them. They are visible at that spot because the grass is short, elsewhere they would be hidden. If one of these rises and flies to and fro almost instantly another follows, and then it is, indeed, a dance before they alight. The wheeling, maze-tracing, devious windings continue till the eye wearies and rests with pleasure on a passing butterfly. These birds have nests in the meadows adjoining; they meet here as a common feeding-ground. Presently they will disperse, each returning to his mate at the nest. Half an hour afterwards they will meet once more, either here or on the wing.
In this manner they spend their time from dawn through the flower-growing day till dusk. When the sun arises over the hill into the sky already blue the plovers have been up a long while. All the busy morning they go to and fro – the busy morning, when the wood-pigeons cannot rest in the copses on the coomb-side, but continually fly in and out; when the blackbirds whistle in the oaks, when the bluebells gleam with purplish lustre. At noontide, in the dry heat, it is pleasant to listen to the sound of water moving among the thousand thousand grass-blades of the mead. The flower-growing day lengthens out beyond the sunset, and till the hedges are dim the lapwings do not cease.
Leaving now the shade of the oak, I follow the path into the meadow on the right, stepping by the way over a streamlet, which diffuses its rapid current broadcast over the sward till it collects again and pours into the brook. This next meadow is somewhat more raised, and not watered; the grass is high and full of buttercups. Before I have gone twenty yards a lapwing rises out in the field, rushes towards me through the air, and circles round my head, making as if to dash at me, and uttering shrill cries. Immediately another comes from the mead behind the oak; then a third from over the hedge, and all those that have been feeding by the brook, till I am encircled with them. They wheel round, dive, rise aslant, cry, and wheel again, always close over me, till I have walked some distance, when, one by one, they fall off, and, still uttering threats, retire. There is a nest in this meadow, and, although it is, no doubt, a long way from the path, my presence even in the field, large as it is, is resented. The couple who imagine their possessions threatened are quickly joined by their friends, and there is no rest till I have left their treasures far behind.”
Now some 60 years on, in the Autumn both of the year and my life, I feel privileged and somewhat humbled to see a couple of these beautiful birds as I pass by a field near home on my way to Caernarfon: I hope that one day soon I shall also hear them here in springtime.
Note: The peewit call of the bird was associated with the legend of the seven whistlers – seven birds flying together by night, whose cries presaged disaster. This call was said to cry “bewitched, bewitched” and so bring evil to those who heard it.
Image Credit: The featured image of Lapwing is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Credit: The Crossley ID Guide: Britain and Ireland, Princeton University Press, 2013.