Blog by Louisa Claxton, RSPB Conservation Intern
In March of this year, I started on an exciting new journey with RSPB Old Hall Marshes, as the conservation intern. Old Hall Marshes is situated on the Blackwater Estuary, it is comprised of ancient coastal grazing marsh and agriculturally improved grassland with reedbed and some scrubby areas.
Grazing is an important part of managing the reserve is to keep the sward short which benefit breeding lapwing, their grazing pattern also has some great benefits for our redshanks by creating tussocks to build their nests inside.
This means that it is currently an exciting time for everybody on the reserve. Chicks are hatching left right and centre, with fluffy lapwing, avocet and redshank chicks plodding about. Only a month ago I saw my first ever avocet chick, now I have counted over thirty-seven on site. Another highlight for me so far was coming across a redshank nest with four babies huddled together inside, amazing.
Lapwings are a priority species on the reserve and are intensely monitored during the breeding season. We have two agriculturally improved wader fields, our primary wader field Bale and our secondary wader field Salcott. Since my arrival in March The reserve warden, Neil Lincoln and I have been monitoring lapwing nest and chick numbers daily on Salcott field. This involved scoping sitting lapwing from the seawall and directing the other person to the nests with questionable hand signals on my part. We then staked near the nests, assigned it a number, and recorded the number of eggs and GPS location. This field has shown to be successful for lapwing, from thirteen nests around fifteen chicks have been seen recently and many off these are almost fledged.
The important task of monitoring lapwing nests on our primary field, bale field is done solely by one of our dedicated volunteers. Between the start of April and the end of May they recorded sixty-six nests and there are still more to be discovered.
Bale field is ideal for breeding waders. A wind pump and drainable pipes maintain correct water levels for feeding chicks throughout the spring, and its permanent electric fence provides freedom from hungry badgers and foxes. Last year before I arrived, some exciting work was carried out by the European Union funded LIFE on the Edge project, with the creation and reprofiling of footdrains and raising of bunds to hold back more water. This has made this field even more attractive to breeding waders this year by holding water at different and variable depths across this field, opening up lots of feeding and foraging areas for young chicks. Further work is planned this autumn, which will be exciting.
I am continually astonished and humbled by the level of biodiversity and the endangered species that flock to this site, seeing beautiful wildlife every day, such as, marsh harriers, cuckoos, egrets and many species of invertebrates is a privilege. I have enjoyed every minute of my internship here so far and have already gained lots of experience and skills in conservation. I am excited for what the rest of the internship will bring.
Blog by Steve Rowland, RSPB England, Area Manager Norfolk and Lincolnshire
Sometime in the 1990’s and I was on a birding trip to Holland with some friends, we’d been taken by some Dutch birders to Beech wood. The canopy was that luminous green that you only get for a few weeks in Spring, and somewhere out of sight we could hear the calls of a Black Woodpecker echoing through the trees. I remember all of us tensing up, this was a bird we all really wanted to see and had managed to miss on previous visits. Suddenly the woodpecker flew into view and the reason for its calls followed it in the form of a pursuing Goshawk. For what felt like couple of minutes but, was probably only a few seconds we watched these two birds chase each other before they both disappeared back through the curtain of Beech leaves and all was quiet again.
It was experiences like this that led me to visit Holland for three springs in a row in the 1990's. With friends I would make the short ferry crossing from my then home in Kent to France and the easy drive up to motorway to Holland, where we would then have a long weekend of full-on Spring birding around the Oostvaardersplassen. I remember that we were blown away by the brilliant birding that we experienced and the scale of some of the habitats and we left thinking that the Dutch had it sorted in how they looked after their environment.
Roll forwards a couple of decades and this Spring I found myself back in Holland on a work study tour with colleagues from the RSPB and National Trust. Our first stop was the island of Texel where on an early morning walk through the dunes I saw a Goshawk, triggering memories of my earlier visits to Holland. Later that day the group enjoyed brilliant views of our first Bluethroats of the trip and as before the quality of the birding experience blew folk away.
On our first afternoon we gathered by the side of a marsh with the splendid name of Utopia. Our host talked to us knowledgably about just one of the challenges of managing land for nature on this agricultural island. He explained that as the dikes [seabanks] are built higher in response to rising sea levels, an especially big deal for the Dutch where half the country is below sea level, the greater weight of water behind the raised seabanks causes increased water pressure and seepage through and under the seabanks and into the fields creating more saline conditions, forcing the islands farmers to trial growing salt resistant varieties of potatoes. As we found more than once during our tour, an action to remedy an environmental problem initiated by human action would often result in new problems to tackle.
To get to the island of Texel we had to drive past mile after mile of intensively farmed fields, many of these were covered in Tulips, glowing orange, yellow, pink, purple and orange, psychedelic stripes across the landscape causing you to reach for your sunglasses. It was striking that there was no edge habitat around the fields, none of the headlands that we are familiar with in the UK. Not only does this mean there is a shortage of wildlife habitat in these areas, but it also became apparent in conversations with our hosts, that during the Dutch Covid lockdowns there was also a shortage of places for people to go for walks in the countryside with many resorting to visiting nature reserves creating extra pressure on these, but paradoxically leading to an increase in Dutch nature conservation organisations membership numbers.
One of the things that struck us when visiting some of the Dutch nature reserves was the scale of them and the amount of money that had been spent on creating habitats. Sometimes this work was driven by European law requiring compensatory habitats to be created where they were being lost elsewhere. The ability to give large areas to nature in this densely populated country also in part seemed to be due to the fact that there was "new land" to use, land which had once been part of the Wadden Sea Europe's most important area of intertidal habitats stretching along the North Sea coast from Holland through Germany to Denmark. It was sobering to be told that today perhaps only a third of the original extent of the Wadden Sea’s intertidal habitats are left, the rest having been taken for sea defences, agriculture and the creation of the large freshwater lakes of the IJsselmeer and Marker Wadden. Creating these large freshwater lakes in areas which were once part of the sea has created environmental challenges, but have also provided some space for habitat creation, but importantly not the replacement of the intertidal habitats that would once have been there.
To see one approach the Dutch have taken to creating breeding habitat for coastal birds we drove to Lelystad and boarded the Tall Ship Abel Tasman joining day trippers, scientists, and volunteers for the 40-minute trip out to the new sand sculpted islands in the middle of the Marker Wadden. These low-lying sandy islands cost about £70 million Euros to construct and have so far been a great success attracting nesting Terns, Kentish Plovers and lots of visitors. On our visit on a cold grey spring day, we were struck by the number of Bearded Tit’s in the new reedbeds on the island and the many shallow lagoons that had been created one of which was temporary home to a Black Winged Stilt. There were also some innovative looking hides, with a very striking tower hide giving great views across this new man-made landscape and an interesting sunken hide giving you knee level views of the local Avocets. These islands are a well monitored experiment, so far they have managed to remain free of ground predators and with good populations of insects to feed the birds. The next challenge will be what nature will do in reaction to their creation, already Willow trees are colonising the new islands, if the aim is to keep the breeding terns and shorebirds the management approach will need to find a way to stop the islands becoming covered in Willow scrub.
During our week we learnt a bit more about the challenges that the Dutch face in their man-made landscape to keep wildlife habitats in equilibrium, whether in response to climate change, increased human demands on the landscape or an increase in predators attracted to islands of abundance in an intensively managed agricultural landscape. We also saw the can-do approach the Dutch bring to some of their problems whether that be the sand sculpted islands on the Marker Wadden or at Balgzand where on the edge of an industrial estate we stood with the Natuurmonumenten warden in a tower hide that looked over a large, raised island. The island was edged by crumbling 10-metre-high man-made cliffs. This island had been made to compensate for the loss of nesting seabird habitat elsewhere and had been constructed out of low-level contaminated waste, a cost-effective use of this locally generated material with a hoped for added environmental benefit.
On the island’s flat top, a pair of Little Ringed Plovers displayed over Oystercatchers and Black Headed Gulls, we were told that soon Terns would return to prospect this raised island for nest sites. So far so good, the feral cats that have proved such a problem elsewhere can’t access the ground nesting birds, but the crumbling cliffs are no barrier for Brown Rats which have colonised the island and last Spring ate their way through the nesting seabirds, their eggs and chicks. It isn't possible to trap or poison the rats so a hunter has been employed to shoot them, it remains to be seen if this will make a serious dent in the rodent population. Another island is planned to follow the same design, our host said that this might be lower but have a metal skirt around its edge to prevent predators accessing it.
On our last day in Holland, we make one final stop by the side of the road that edges the Oostvaarderplassen, a vast wetland complex and site of an experiment in re-wilding that has been influential in developing new approaches to nature conservation across Europe. For several minutes our car passes alongside some large freshwater lakes over which are countless Little Gulls and Black Terns hawking for insects. We pull off at a parking space and watch a White-Tailed Eagle fly across a dried-out marsh.
This eagle is part of recent increase in this species population in north-west Europe, originally driven by the growth of the German population, it was this man driven landscape experiment that helped them colonise the Netherlands. Stretching into the distance beyond the fence in front of us half of the Oostvaarderplassen has been at the centre of a re-wilding experiment, this at one time led to a huge amount of dead livestock being left in the landscape for scavengers to eat including young White-Tailed Eagles whose survival rates dramatically increased which in time led to an increase in the Dutch breeding population.
The wetland in front of us was not dry because of drought, but because the scientists who run the reserve have switched the wetland off for three years to try and refresh the wetland habitats with plant material, so that when they re-flood these marshes there will be more food for the insects at the bottom of the food chain, which in turn will lead to more food for birds and other wildlife. An un-expected consequence of this drying out has been to push wetland birds out across Holland, with new Spoonbill colonies springing up across the country as a response to this most recent human intervention in the landscape.
Looking across the Oostvaarderplassen as an eagle flaps by is not a bad way to end a trip to Holland. To quote Sam Hamm "talk provoking is thought provoking" and we had much to talk and think about on our weeks study tour. In particular we were struck by the fact that the Dutch are facing many similar problems to us the effects of climate change, recreational use of the countryside, predation, and pressures from industry. They have a can-do approach to working at scale to construct new landscapes such as the amazing sand-scaped islands in the Marker Wadden. But finding a new ecological equilibrium in such an artificial landscape isn't easy and the landscapes that existed before were of huge now gone ecological significance.
All of us I think came away thinking about things a little differently, particularly the need to work at scale and just get things done. As my colleague Ben from the National Trust said, "at the end of the day it all comes down to graft". I returned home grateful for the chance to meet with some inspirational Dutch colleagues who shared their experience in delivering nature conservation and also some of the challenges that they face and often share with us here in the UK. I was certainly inspired and came away with new perspectives to help me with the hard graft of giving nature a helping hand in my corner of Norfolk and Lincolnshire.
This LIFE on the Edge networking trip to the Netherlands was made possible due to the EU LIFE programme of the European Union.
By Rachelle Regan, RSPB Hodbarrow Tern Protection Assistant
Another season has begun at RSPB Hodbarrow and preparations for the arrival of the Terns started in March. The lagoon island expansion works that took place over winter 2020-2021 meant an extra 130m of anti-predator fencing that needed some repairs after recent periods of strong north westerly winds. This involves donning chest high waders, requires steading footing and a good amount of perseverance! We hope the birds are grateful.
It is not just the Terns that have benefited from the fencing, but since it’s installation in 2016, Eiders have begun nesting on the island, increasing from 18 pairs in 2018 to an amazing 51 pairs in 2021! Numbers are looking good again this year with the first few nests spotted on the 18th April.
In addition to the anti-predator fencing, we install trail cameras on the island to monitor for predator presence. These may pick up any activity missed or unseen and inform immediate actions and future management. They also occasionally produce some stunning sunset photos!
Another important aspect of the site set up is signage. Myself and the other Tern Protection Assistant, Chris, will be on site as much as possible throughout the season monitoring disturbance and talking to visitors. Signs, however, are vital to inform those we do not get a chance to speak to and clearly mark out the areas that are off limits to allow the birds to nest undisturbed. This year’s signs have been created as part of the LOTE project in partnership with Cumbria Wildlife Trust, Natural England, RSPB and National Trust to help protect ground nesting seabirds and waders along the Duddon Estuary and Morecombe Bay.
As well as chick shelters that provide the Tern chicks with predator protection and shelter from the weather, something new for this year is the installation of Red-breasted Merganser nest boxes made by the RSPB Campfield Marsh volunteers. At least three pairs bred in 2020 and hopefully these nest boxes will encourage them again this year.
Now the preparations are complete the monitoring begins. Nearly 800 Sandwich Terns have already arrived back from their wintering grounds in Namibia and South Africa, joined by the first Common Tern on the 12th April and Little Tern on the 13th April.
This will be my third season at Hodbarrow and my third year living in West Cumbria year-round. The obvious answer to why I enjoy this role is my love of Terns! Their beauty and their energy is captivating, I can watch them for hours on end and never grow tired. In this role I get to spend most of my time outdoors and no two days are the same. The change in weather, tides and seasons mean there is always something to see, from the birds to the insects to the unique flora. You have the sea and Duddon estuary on one side and the mountains of the Lake District on the other, there’s no such thing as a bad view no matter which way you are facing! The Cumbria and Northern England RSPB team are another reason why I enjoy this role and keep coming back, for me the people you work with are just as important as the work itself, and they are excellent team of supportive and knowledgeable people.
I am very much looking forward to another season, hopefully one full of sunshine and Tern chicks!
By Audrey Jost - Assistant Warden at RSPB Seasalter Levels
Works are coming to an end at Seasalter Levels. Machines are slowly leaving the site whilst rills and scrapes fill up with water, making the landscape unrecognisable from 6 months ago.
Five hydrological units have been created, where water levels will be controlled by mechanical pumps that extract water from the surrounding ditch network and disperse it into the fields in order to provide the right habitat conditions for breeding waders.
The changes in the landscape provided immediate results wildlife-wise. Lapwings are now a regular sighting across the site, with a flock of 142 observed during the last wetland bird survey. Redshank, wigeon, curlew, green sandpiper, teal and shoveler are further examples of recently seen species. We even spotted a juvenile golden plover!
As most breeding wetland birds are ground nesters, they are very vulnerable to predation, notably by foxes. In order to boost the fledgling rate of youngs, we installed a 1.8 kilometre long anti-predator fence on part of the reserve. The fence is buried in the ground and cranked towards the outside at the top to prevent predators from digging and climbing respectively.
In addition to the anti-predator fence, the infrastructure and associated fencing installation to allow cattle grazing of the site is in progress and is due to be completed by March 2022. We also increased the number of corrals from 1 to 4, which will help with cattle movement across the site.
As the project is wrapping up, it is giving way to a time of recovery and monitoring. It has been an intense year for the reserve and it will take a few more years for it to fully reach its potential. A huge thank you to our funders, the reserve team and the contractors for making this project a reality!
By Annette Salkeld, RSPB North Suffolk Coast Reserves Warden
An exciting three-year project is currently underway to rejuvenate the iconic Minsmere Scrape to benefit breeding, passage and overwintering birds and to improve viewing opportunities.
Drone footage of before the works by Jeff Kew
The Scrape was originally created in the 1960s as a series of both brackish and freshwater lagoons with islands and remains so to this day. Much work is needed to keep the Scrape in top condition and this project will give us the opportunity to make a big impression. The project has been made possible through funding from the EU Life+ project and the National Grid Landscape Enhancement Initiative.
The first year’s work, which involved adding shingle to islands in front of Public Platform, has been completed and is looking fantastic. This will provide nesting habitat for ground nesting shingle loving birds, including little, Sandwich and common terns. The beach at Minsmere used to support breeding little tern, but, as a result of coastal change along the East Anglian coastline, it has been eroding and is no longer a suitable nesting habitat for these endangered birds which stopped using it as a breeding site nearly 15 years ago. It is hoped that by providing alternative habitat on the Scrape they can be encouraged to breed regularly at Minsmere again.
Time lapse of shingle being spread on the island by Lou Chapman
The work due to be carried out in years two and three (autumn 2022 and 2023) focus in on East Scrape and West Scrape in turn. The aim of this part of the project is to create new, improved islands, as well as changing the layout of the lagoons by removing or building up the dividing bunds. An area of encroaching reeds will also be removed which in turn will increase the area of lagoon habitat. By doing this we will improve the islands for breeding birds as well as maximising the views of the birds from the hides. Rejuvenation of the lagoons will also ensure that the Scrape remains a mecca for passage waders: 52 species have been recorded at Minsmere with an average of 32 species visiting each year.
New water control structures will be installed to enhance hydrological management, enabling us to run the lagoons at different water depths and improving our ability to move water around the site. This is particularly important in flood and drought conditions.
The work should also benefit the iconic avocet which was the target of the original Scrape creation project and remains a top priority and visitor attraction. The timing is perfect as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the reserve this year!
The RSPB Minsmere Facebook and Twitter accounts will be kept updated with progress on this fascinating project so why don’t you connect with Minsmere through social media and keep informed on the great work happening on the reserve.
Photo credits: Oystercatcher by Katie Nethercoat (rspb-images.com)