Monday, 7 December 2009

The turning of the tide

It is the first really cold day of winter; a bitter wind driving in off the sea. We have come to Holkham Gap to search for Shorelarks, winter visitors from Fennoscandian breeding grounds that return to favoured traditional haunts in varying numbers late each autumn. Parking on Lady Anne’s Drive, earlier enough in the morning to be just a few strides from the beach, we wander out into the Gap and start scanning the exposed saltmarsh and sandy shingles for birds. Almost straight away we catch the movement of a flock of small birds. This is a mixed flock, mostly Goldfinches but with Linnets and Meadow Pipits among their number, wonderful to see but not what we have come for.

Moving to the east and skirting out towards the ridge of sand we soon come across another small party of birds, this time with nine Shorelarks in their midst, all busy feeding on seeds, including those from the Salicornia. Shorelarks are instantly recognisable birds, peachy-brown in colour with yellow and black head markings and delicate black ‘horns’. They have something of the exotic about them, a feel of the Mongolian desert that perfectly balances their preference for the short vegetation and rough ground that Holkham’s coastal shingles provide. As we watch, the larks move forward with an abbreviated mix of runs, shuffles and crouches, pausing to feed and then briefly disappearing from view behind the uneven ground.

Holkham Gap, Salthouse and Cley are Norfolk’s traditional sites for these birds, the mix of vegetation providing the cover and feeding opportunities that they need. There were few Shorelarks around last winter but this year things are looking better. The pattern of fluctuating numbers is not a new phenomenon and it has been suggested that the size of the autumn arrival is determined by the number pushed west during migration. The bulk of the Fennoscandian breeding population winters in northeast and central Europe and few birds cross the North Sea to our shores. Numbers are also influenced by what has been happening to these birds on their breeding grounds, with the increasing population in southern Norway likely to see increasing numbers wintering here in the future. There are probably several dozen birds here this winter, far fewer than the extraordinary flock of 240 present on 28th November 1998.

While these birds are fleeting visitors to our shores, they have a truly extraordinary global distribution. Widespread across northern Europe, Asia and North America, there is an isolated breeding population in Chile and one in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. Breeding has even been attempted in Scotland. As winter progresses, the larks will be harder to find, becoming shy and retiring, with some birds moving off to the Continent.

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