Mixed flocks of lapwing and golden plover will be a familiar sight to those who venture into the Norfolk countryside at this time of the year. On dull autumn days, the hunched silhouettes of these medium-sized wading birds can be seen on freshly ploughed fields or areas cleared of sugar beet. Both species make less extensive use of mudflats than other wading birds and, as such, they can turn up almost anywhere across our largely agricultural county. While some of the lapwing will be birds that have bred locally during the summer, perhaps at Holkham or within the Brecks, most will be drawn from breeding populations elsewhere, including Fennoscandia and the Low Countries. All of the golden plover will be winter visitors – the species does not breed in Norfolk – drawn from upland areas spread across northern Europe.
Because the wintering populations of these two species make use of inland agricultural habitats they are not well-monitored through existing monitoring schemes, such as the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS); paradoxically, though, Breydon Water supports an internationally important population of lapwing. The use of inland habitats means that the size of their wintering populations has to be determined through a special wintering plover survey. This is organised by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and, with concerns of a potential population decline and a suggested shift in wintering range, the latest survey is taking place this winter. Most of our wintering lapwing arrive between late September and the end of November, with peak numbers of golden plover noted in November. Later into the winter, birds may become more mobile as freezing temperatures force them to move south or west to find areas free from frost, where they can feed. Both species prefer to feed on areas of permanent pasture, rich in earthworms, a habitat that is scarce within Norfolk. Instead they make use of winter cereals, oil seed rape and sugar beet stubbles, feeding at night on beetles and earthworms.
Sizeable mixed flocks can literally ‘carpet’ fields but smaller flocks, of 50 or so birds, often go unnoticed. If you are out and about in the countryside this month, make an effort to scan the fields for these two plovers or offer to take on one of the BTO’s survey squares. While the bulk of the survey work will be carried out by BTO volunteers, visiting the randomly selected survey squares, information is also needed from other areas. Records of lapwings or golden plovers seen anywhere within the county are especially welcome and can be submitted on a casual records form. Copies of the form can be obtained by downloading it from www.bto.org/goto/winter-plovers or by phoning the BTO on 01842-750050.