More often than not, when I tell people that I work for the RSPB, their response is ‘Wow – that must be a great place to work’ or ‘Blimey, that’s a cool job’. And do you know what, they're absolutely right. On a weekly basis the work of a Communications Officer looks a little bit like this; 30 cups of tea, 3 press releases drafted and sent out, 3 radio interviews given, 8 meetings attended, 1 proper lunch break, 5 blogs written, 1 trip out to a reserve, 10 enquiries from journalists, 4 documents proof-read - and so on! You get the picture. In between all of that, there is fairly little time to actually get out and enjoy the wildlife that we get to write about so frequently.
Our RSPB office day out yesterday was a welcome respite from our computer screens and to-do lists. As we congregated at Strumpshaw Fen nature reserve in the Broads, kitted out in wellies and waterproofs, we went off for a day of outdoor adventure. Broken up into teams, we were given The Apprentice-style challenges to undertake. Needless to say there was a little bit of competitiveness in the air and we delighted in trying to win points from the other teams.
It’s fair to say that the weather was pretty miserable yesterday, but Strumpshaw Fen can make even grey skies and drizzle seem atmospheric! One of our activities for the morning was pond-dipping and mini-beast hunting! If you’ve never been pond-dipping or taken your kids along to a family session where it’s going on, I urge you to go and try it out. We took our nets and vigilantly scooped them into the water, swirling figure of eights on the surface of the pond. And from this quick dip in the water, the outcome was astounding. We found whirligig beetles, ramshorn snails, damselfly lavae, waterboatmen, mayfly lavae, pond louse and so many more. Our trays were absolutely teaming with life. From such a small snapshot of pond life, we were able to witness this amazing world that normally goes totally unnoticed. One of the cool facts we learnt is how fierce a predator these creatures can all be – each with their own unique techniques (water boatmen kill their prey by jabbing it with their feeding tube and injecting its toxic saliva) they have found a way to stake a claim on their little slice of pond and keep safe from anything getting in it’s way!
Our afternoon was spent doing some genuine ‘hard graft’ out on the reserve where the management of the reedbeds is vital for the future condition of the reserve and the wildlife that lives there. To keep the reed from growing and embedding in excess it needs to be managed, and that means getting your wellies on and your rake at the ready. Scraping all of the cut reed and piling it up is no easy task and after an hour we were all holding our backs, our arms were aching and our hands had blisters on them! Don’t get me wrong though, our afternoon was wonderful and being out in such a remote part of the reserve was stunning. I was only mildly jealous that the other team got to see a bittern flying over them as they worked!
As the day drew to a close and dusk fell over the reserve, a rather weary but glowing team of RSPB staff tucked into a delicious bbq and chatted about the day’s activities.
Back at my desk this morning, i’m definitely missing the fresh air and wildlife of Strumpshaw Fen. But it makes me smile to remember what a fantastic organisation the RSPB is and how proud I am to work for them. Whatever job you do at the RSPB, desk based or out on a reserve, the cause is the same and our motivation and commitment will always be sky high.
Pink footed geese, Image from RSPB images
It’s a noise that cuts through the conversation in the RSPB’s Snettisham reserve office, as each of us recognising the sound, automatically leaves our desks and moves to the windows to gaze into the cloudy grey sky.
For a moment we can’t see anything and then there they are, the first of the winter. High above us perhaps as many as 300 Pink Footed Geese in half a dozen wavering V shaped skeins flying towards the Wash which lies just a couple of miles to the West of where we are sitting.
For the next five months, the farmland and coastline of north and west Norfolk will be their home, providing them with the two things that every pink footed goose needs; food and somewhere safe to rest.
To reach us in Norfolk, these birds have completed an epic flight across the north Atlantic from their breeding ground in the interior of Iceland, making landfall in Scotland and then heading south for their winter refuge around The Wash, the UK’s most important estuary for wild birds
These geese are clever, not only have they just found their way across the north Atlantic, but they have come to Norfolk because of what ecologists call ‘cultural learning’. In Norfolk the geese have learnt that the aftermath of the sugar beet harvest, the bits of beet root left behind in the soil after the crop has been lifted, are a carbohydrate rich food source, perfect for powering a goose through the cold dark days of winter.
Their other need, a place to sleep where they will be safe from ground predators such as foxes, is provided by The Wash at the RSPB’s Snettisham nature reserve. Depending upon the state of the tide the 'Pinkies' roost here each night on the mudflats or open water. Then at day break they lift off into the dawn sky, at this time of year in flocks of a few hundred. As the weeks go by and their numbers build with birds freshly arrived from the far north and they depart the roost in their thousands and then in their tens of thousands. The wink, wink call that caused me and my colleagues to leave our computers and peer out of the office window grows into a cacophony of sound that becomes the soundtrack to a Norfolk winter.
Like so many birds, pink feet depend on farmers for their survival. Sugar beet growers tolerating large flocks of geese feeding in their fields on the remains of the beet harvest is of crucial importance to these birds, as is the wild and wonderful place which is The Wash.
And how do they repay us for letting them feed in our fields and protecting The Wash? Well for me at least I think there is something pretty special about a bird that has the unique ability from several hundred feet up in the air, to pull me away from my computer screen and gaze at the sky and tell me that the seasons are turning, autumn is beginning to merge into winter. And everyday in the darkness of a midwinter’s dusk, the soundtrack will play in wink, wink, wink, wink a timely reminder that the day is nearly over and I need to begin to think about heading home for tea.
To see the geese for yourself why not join one of our special guided walks visit the RSPB Snettisham reserve events page to find out more.
Steve Rowland, Public Affairs Manager
Bearded tit image courtesty of Kevin Simmonds, www.wildlifeimagery.co.uk
Bearded tits don’t subscribe to the Ronseal approach of ‘does what it says on the tin’ because they are actually neither tits nor bearded. Research places these dainty golden brown birds as the only British member of a tropical family, the babblers. And as for the beard, well, you don’t need to be a facial hair expert to know that isn’t a beard - their look would be better described as a moustache or even ‘mutton chop’ style. Quite military and distinguished, I think you’ll agree.
Like me, always happier in temperate climes, the bearded tit population will be hoping for a mild winter. These sparrow sized birds are particularly vulnerable to cold weather and following the hard winter of 1947, the Norfolk population was devastatingly reduced down to just a single bird. That’s not the only reason ‘beardies’ have had a hard time as a breeding species in the UK. Habitat loss due to drainage, persecution by collectors during Victorian times and loss of habitat due to agricultural practices have provided significant challenges to their survival in the last three hundred years.
Since then, milder winters, conservation measures and an impressive capability for speedy breeding have enabled the Norfolk population to make a startling recovery to around 140 pairs.
At RSPB Titchwell Marsh nature reserve, the wardens are giving bearded tits a real helping hand. Firstly, they keep the reedbeds on which these secretive birds depend in tip top condition. The reedbeds offer a total sanctuary for bearded tits providing shelter, nest sites and a supply of seeds to eat throughout the winter. But the wardens have also gone the extra mile...
If you have sharp eyes you may spot some unusual structures in Titchwell’s reedbeds. Looking like a vital accessory for a game of quidditch, these ‘broomsticks’ - made of a broom handle and bundles of reed - appear to have been abandoned in the reedbed. In fact, there’s no magic involved, just a bit of creative thinking. These are actually perfect mobile homes for ‘beardies’; cosy snugs just right for a new family, that can be moved out of the way of rising water levels which would otherwise wash away precious nests, eggs and chicks.
Bearded tits are both secretive and well camouflaged and that makes them harder to spot than a needle in a reedbed! But they do have a distinctive, metallic call known as ‘pinging’, which sounds just like a ball bearing being dropped onto sheet metal. If you hear this noise then keep your eyes open and you may be lucky enough to see a flock darting through the reedbed.
Why not pop along to Titchwell, where staff and volunteers will be on hand to point you in the right direction of the beautiful, but badly named, bearded tit?
Sometimes we are reminded just how vulnerable the natural world is and how at mercy of human actions it is at all times.
No one could have watched the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster without fearing for marine and bird life.
Just yesterday, we had one of those ‘oh no’ moments in our region too, with the news that about 500 litres of oil had leaked from a ship in the Thames Estuary. The oil soon spread and reached to Canvey Island and washed up on beaches. Still reeling with recent footage from America, my mind couldn’t help but fill with shocking images of oil coated birds, struggling to survive.
In the Thames in particular, many thousands of ducks, geese and wading birds use the Estuary as an important stop-over and refuelling point on their migration south from their Arctic breeding grounds. If they land in polluted areas and get oil on their feathers it can damage the waterproofing and insulation and at worst prevent them from flying. In the longer term, if oil gets into the estuary mud, it could poison much of the food the birds depend on to survive the winter.
Thankfully, the impacts of this spill appear to be minimal. As with any spill, we’ll be monitoring the wildlife closely and if you are concerned about any individual birds, then do contact a local welfare organisation such as the RSPCA.
It’s a fragile, fragile world.
Image Mike Richards, RSPB Images: An oiled guillemot - thankfully an archived image not from the recent Essex oil spill
Often, in spring, I’m thrilled to hear an unusual wailing call sailing its way with the wind across RSPB Minsmere nature reserve. It sounds like a high-pitched referee’s whistle. This means one thing – the stone curlews are back.
These birds are extremely rare and I always feel privileged to be able to go and see them at Minsmere (not something that everyone gets to do because they are so sensitive to disturbance). Only 347 pairs breed in the UK.
Stone curlews have an extremely unusual courtship display – they spread their tails and wings and run around chasing each other. They are actually classified as wading birds but breed on dry, very bare habitats. In fact, one of the tasks I undertook as a volunteer at RSPB Minsmere this winter was surveying the stone curlew habitat. This took me several days of assessing the numbers of stones, vegetation height and quantity of rabbit poo in squares around the fields at Minsmere. It wasn’t the most exciting job ever, but certainly important given how unusual this species is.
As a species stone curlews suffered one of the fastest ever declines – they lost 85% of their UK population between the 1940s-1980s and fell to around 150 breeding pairs. Their recovery is largely thanks to the work of the RSPB and a lot of it has taken place in the east of England. On the Suffolk coast, Minsmere has become the epicentre of stone curlew breeding.
So how has Minsmere managed this? Well, we have created new stone curlew habitat by converting old arable land back into grassland and heathland. This is called arable reversion. We also provide things like electric fences to protect nest sites from predators.
A lot of this work requires external funding, and some of this funding comes from something called Higher Level Stewardship.
Higher Level Stewardship is a government scheme which provides money for conservation. Personally I hate acronyms and technical jargon, so let me explain. Higher Level Stewardship rewards landowners for measures they take to improve conditions for wildlife.
In part thanks to this funding, Minsmere now has five breeding pairs of stone curlews which this year successfully fledged nine chicks.
Now for the bad news (to fit in with the dramatic picture of a tractor ready to demolish a stone curlew nest at the top of this blog). Higher Level Stewardship is just one scheme which funds wildlife and conservation which is under threat from government spending cuts.
In the east of England, during the 10-year life of all our reserves’ various HLS schemes the RSPB will have received £400,000 for capital works (i.e. one-off costs such as infrastructure – gates or fences for example). HLS provides money which, as you can see, brings direct wildlife benefits on reserves and farms all across the east of England.
So what can we do? Well, we need to halt biodiversity loss, and the coalition government has committed to do this. And we need to send the government and MPs a clear message – Don’t cut our countryside. Today, you can join those who have already sent this message to their politicians. And this week also marks a special milestone. We have now received over 300, 000 signatures for our Letter to the Future campaign asking the government to take spending decisions which benefit nature, wildlife and the environment. You can sign this too.
Matt Williams, Assistant Warden, RSPB Snape