Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Beauty and the industrial beast

The little ringed plover is an enigmatic bird, all the more so because of its scarcity and association with industrial land. This dainty wader is one of the earliest spring migrants to arrive in Britain, with individuals reaching favoured sites during the second half of March.  But they can arrive earlier, so it is worth keeping an eye out for them over coming weeks. Breeding sites include gravel pits and the settling pools of beet factories but they will also use a range of other industrial or agricultural opportunities. For them, disturbance around the nest, in the form of heavy machinery or workers, is the norm rather than the exception. Although this can, at times, lead to the failure of nesting attempts, aggregate companies and other businesses have proved to be sensitive to their needs, often becoming justifiably protective of their diminutive charges. Unfortunately, egg collectors still target the nests of this species, so fenced and patrolled industrial sites are probably one of the safest nesting places to choose. As such, the importance of industrial sites in the development of the little ringed plover breeding population should not be underestimated.

Little ringed plovers used only to be seen here on passage during spring and autumn, while they were on their way to and from breeding grounds elsewhere. However, a pair nested at Tring Reservoirs in 1938 and since that time the species has continued to colonise Britain, with increasing numbers of nesting attempts reported annually from industrial sites across the eastern part of the country. Nesting in Norfolk was first proved in 1960 and now some 30 or so pairs nest across the county – the gravel pits around Colney being one of the favoured localities. After nesting, family parties move off to the coast before departing from our shores sometime before the end of September, heading south for wintering grounds around the Mediterranean and into Africa.

The development and expansion of the breeding population has been charted by occasional national surveys, the last of which took place in 1984. Indications are that the increase has continued and it is now time for another national survey to see if this is really the case. The survey, being coordinated by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), is taking place this summer and volunteers are needed to visit local gravel pits and other sites to search for little ringed plovers. The BTO is also taking this opportunity to assess the status of the closely related ringed plover, a larger and more widespread species. If you can spare some time this summer to visit potential breeding areas, then the BTO wants to hear from you. Contact Greg Conway on 01842-750050 or email him at

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