I miss the lovely calling of lapwings at night. When the fields surrounding my cottage were used for grazing stock, the summer nights used to fairly buzz with their calling. The increase in sheep farming in this airt with grass literally eaten to the bone has certainly reduced their numbers here and, whilst some pairs persist, the population has undoubtedly declined.
This spring, other people have commented that there appears to be a shortage of both lapwings and curlews in areas where both were once prevalent. I have little doubt that the face of farming over the past few years has contributed much to their decline.
But as soon as you begin to explore grazing ground, especially on the lower hills, as I did in recent weeks, the picture changes quite markedly. The grassland that I went to explore had its share of lapwing chicks. Everywhere I looked I could see their little scuttling figures as they sought out food – sometimes prodding into the soft soil especially when exploring little wet hollows and sometimes picking the insects quite literally from the blades of grass.
Young lapwings, - or if you prefer peesies, peewits, peesweeps, teuchits, chewits and a whole host of other pseudonyms – are comic little creatures, beautifully camouflaged in their first few weeks by that mottled back and head yet easily identified by their leggy appearance and the characteristic black collar.
Had I broken cover, no doubt I would have been immediately bombarded by the adult birds because peewits are very active in the defence of their young. Like all such ground nesters, they also have an ability to “freeze” their youngsters with a sharp alarm call so that the young immediately crouch absolutely still to avoid detection whilst the adults themselves set up a series of distracting displays. Not only do they mob any alien intruder, be it human or otherwise, but they are also dab hands at deploying the broken wing trick – trailing a wing as if injured to draw the attention of any potential predator away from the youngsters. These, needless to say, remain absolutely motionless thus merging with the landscape until instructed to do otherwise. By my estimation, most of the youngsters I watched were between a week and two weeks old.
Recently, I also had the pleasure of watching some young curlews which, with a sprinkling of adults, dotted a low ground field. Young ‘whaups’ are gangling creatures, all leg and beak, although in this case they were not yet fully developed so did not display the spectacular long curved bill.
Oystercatchers are also ground nesters but they are known to practice “egg dumping”. Like the cuckoo they sometimes lay their eggs in the nests of other species such as seagulls, abandoning them to be raised by those birds. Like lapwing and curlew chicks, their young are upwardly mobile from the moment they emerge from the egg but sadly they are also in decline. However, I have a very clear memory of a pair regularly nesting atop a drystone dyke beside a busy road. On one occasion, the chicks left the nest descending to the roadside which sent the parents into a state of frenzy. Happily, they scuttled along until they were able to find a gate to safety.
What all these particular observations illustrate well in all three cases is the independence of these youngsters at such an early age. In fact, within a matter of hours of hatching, ground nesters such as these are mobile enough to be able to run at a fair speed considering their minuscule proportions. I have actually seen a young peewit running along with part of its egg shell still attached to it. Furthermore, they are self-sufficient enough to feed themselves from the outset.
Preliminary attempts at flight by oystercatcher chicks are seen about the fifth day as wing-flapping and leaping. Thereafter, the wings are frequently exercised every day until actual flight becomes possible about the end of the fourth week. On the other hand, it will be about five weeks before the young peewits are able to take to the air and in the case of the curlews, they do not fly until they are approaching about seven weeks.
The contrast between these typical ground nesters and other birds, which are reared in quite different circumstances, can best be demonstrated by a further observation – this time of young blackbirds which are most certainly not independent, or anything like it when first hatched. I suppose the real differences lie in the type of nesting habitat and, of course, in the lifestyle of the bird in question. It should also be said that blackbirds incubate their eggs for a mere two weeks whilst lapwings, for example, sit on their eggs for about four.
Of course, ground nesting birds are more vulnerable than the likes of blackbirds which build their nests in much more protected and less exposed locations. The ones I have been watching have nested in my orchard while, as many readers will undoubtedly know, they often choose such locations as garden sheds. More naturally, perhaps, they may also choose fairly thick shrubbery or hedges in which to construct their nests. In theory, they are therefore less at risk from predators although squirrels, weasels, jays and magpies are quite capable of totally destroying a nest full of young blackbirds.
Just a week or so ago, I watched a newly fledged blackie, which was still trying to find its wings, snatched by a male sparrowhawk doubtless as food for its own youngsters. It should also be remembered that blackbirds often produce several broods in a season. Two is commonplace or even three but on occasions it may run to four or even five for a particularly hard working pair.
Lapwings and curlews generally content themselves with one clutch per season although in the old days when lapwing eggs were considered a delicacy – now a thing of the past, thank goodness – it was common practice for people to take the first clutch in the knowledge that the birds would inevitably lay another.
One way or another, the avian production line is currently in full swing. The hordes of sparrows that we have here have been extra energetic producing countless youngsters. I have been watching parent birds feeding their fawning young, with their wings trembling and their mouths agape to reveal the colourful interior which is a stimulus to the parents to stuff food into their mouths. The other day, one took briefly to the air to snatch a flying insect which would, I suppose, have added protein to the youngster’s diet.
We have also been inundated by a bevy of newly fledged starlings – hardly yet a murmuration, more as my wife described them, a squabble! Young starlings are appallingly bad mannered, bullying is endemic and belies the amazing discipline they subsequently show when they fly in perfect order in their murmurations.
A pair of crows has also been tending to a single youngster which, like the young sparrows, fawns frantically to encourage its parents to feed it. The first redcap, from one of two pairs, has also appeared at the bird table. Indeed, the woodpeckers are also incessant visitors devouring the fat-balls at an incredible rate. I presume both pairs must be feeding other newly fledged youngsters.
So once again, nature goes forth and multiplies.