Monday, 7 July 2014

Species of the month July: the Norfolk plover

Ed Parnell, Norfolk Wildlife Trust

The Breckland Living Landscape is home to the stone curlew, one of the county’s most distinctive birds, fittingly also known as the Norfolk plover.

Stone curlew, Jessica Riederer
Stone curlews are a type of wading bird, but they are not (as their name might suggest) related to the Eurasian curlew, which is a familiar bird found mainly around our coasts. In fact, the stone curlew is the only European representative of the Thick-knee family and, yes, it does have rather knobbly knees – though you’ll need a very good view to actually notice this!

Stone curlews are very much an inland bird, finding one of their national strongholds among the grassy heathlands and neighbouring arable fields of the Brecks. They are a migratory species, arriving back in Norfolk in March and April each year, having spent their winter around the Mediterranean and even south of the Sahara. A few birds now do seem to be staying put in Norfolk over the winter, perhaps a trend that will increase with climate change? 

Plumage-wise Norfolk plovers are brown and streaked above, with a pale belly and a noticeable white wing-bar. They have a stubby, strong-looking bill and long yellowish-green legs. However, their most distinctive features are their large yellow eyes, which led to another of their historical Norfolk names – the goggle-eyed plover!

Arguably the best site to see stone curlews in the UK is NWTWeeting Heath, near Brandon. Two special viewing hides have been constructed here which give excellent views over the grassy heath where the birds feed and nest. The turf is kept short by large numbers of rabbits, something which is actively encouraged by Norfolk Wildlife Trust, as they keep the grass at just the right height for these rare birds, as well as numerous scarce Breckland plants and invertebrates.

Despite the shortness of the grass, the stone curlews are not always easy to spot as their brown-streaked plumage can look remarkably like a rabbit from a distance. Often, too, the birds sit motionless for long periods (particularly when they are on the nest) and it is not until they move across the ground in short, running bursts that they become obvious. Towards dusk though their activity levels rise and they start making their rather eerie, wailing calls.

NWT Weeting Heath is located just west of Brandon on the Norfolk-Suffolk border. Leave Brandon on the A1065 towards Mundford. Cross the railway line on the outskirts of the town, then turn left to Weeting village. In the village itself take the left turn to Hockwold cum Wilton. The reserve car park and visitor centre are 2.5km west of Weeting village and well-signed from the road. 

Visitor Centre: 29 March to 31 August, every day, 10am-5pm
Reserve: 29 March to September (Aug on demand due to nesting) every day 7am till dusk
Call the centre: 01842 827615  

A small entrance charge applies for adult non-NWT members.

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