Little Ringed Plover
Nesting waders in this country have sadly declined due to a reduction of wetlands. However, the story of the little ringed plover in north-west Europe since the 1930s provides an impressive exception. Expansion has been achieved through an exploitation of manmade habitats, especially gravel pits and new reservoirs.
Shingle stretches in pits provide most nesting sites in England, particularly those still being worked and before the ground becomes too overgrown. Other requirements are fresh water with shallow muddy margins and a rich food supply.
As might be expected there is a frequent turnover as nesting sites become unsuitable and newly emerging ones are colonised following reconnaissance.
Some pits are deserted after as short a period as two years often through changing water levels.
Additional breeding sites in Norfolk have included sewerage farms, beet factory settling ponds and reserves at Cley, Holkham, Strumpshaw, Titchwell and Welney.
More surprisingly, industrial wasteland only a mile from Norwich Cathedral has also been colonised. Most unusual was the pair which attempted nesting on a factory roof at King's Lynn. Unfortunately the young perished following heavy rain when they were only a few days old.
An abundance of manmade breeding sites here doubtless explains the few observations of colonising river shingle, a favoured habitat on the Continent.
The nature of little ringed plover sites means that disturbance is normal rather than exceptional. There are regular reports of birds disturbed by bulldozers and lorries as well as by anglers and human egg-collectors.
Disturbance after eggs are laid provides opportunities for predation by carrion crows, jays, kestrels, magpies, foxes and mink. Flooding, either deliberate or as a result of summer storms, is another cause of failure. Fortunately little ringed plovers are not easily put off by disturbance and readily lay again, sometimes within days if a clutch comes to grief or the chicks die.
The nestlings are delightful balls of down. Active from birth their long legs carry them at high speed over the shingle. The parents readily feign injury to distract attention from young which can fly at around three weeks.
It is interesting to note that a breeding pair is sometimes joined by a third bird, male or female, which readily takes part in incubation, care of the young and even defence of the territory. Such 'helpers' - exceptionally there may be two - are fully tolerated by the pair. Possibly they are offspring or partners from an earlier year.
The little ringed plover is a visitor from early March although arrivals are not widespread until the month end. Arrival is announced by repeated 'butterfly' song-flights. The male circles endlessly with slow and deliberate wing-beats. Although excitable and noisy in the early part of the breeding season, pairs later become highly secretive.
In early autumn family groups begin deserting nesting grounds and commence a leisurely southward movement. The birds are known to winter in the northern tropics of Africa after travelling overland through France (where the Camargue is an important staging area) and across the Sahara.
Recoveries of little ringed plovers are limited. But a young bird ringed in Norfolk in mid-June was found two months later in Majorca.
Until late October the birds may be found on estuaries, flooded coastal marshes and farm reservoirs. Groups of a dozen are frequent; 27 have assembled near Reedham, with 20 at both Cley and Holme and 19 at King's Lynn beet factory. Little ringed plovers first nested in Norfolk in 1960; nowadays up to 40 pairs summer in the county.
Unmistakable in flight,
they display uniform wings: the absence of any white wing-bar immediately
distinguishing them from the more aggressive ringed plover.
Michael J. Seago