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Part 27 - The Lapwing and the Reed bunting

Lapwing Vanellus vanellus

Lapwings were far more common when I was growing up (in Potters Bar) and I had almost certainly encountered them long before I did so consciously. The very first time I recall seeing one was in Sussex near the junction of the A27 and A23 but as this was 1969 it was long before either of these was a major highway. I was a student and en route, by coach, to see a friend studying at the University. Later that day there was another first for me – a visit to Lewes - but my most enduring memory of that weekend was the sight of this extraordinary bird with rounded wings and a long crest. I recognised it instantly as it was the main illustration on the cover of my then only bird book. (Sad obsessive that I am, I have to pause here to count the current number - 89).

Green plovers or peewits are alternative names for this bird, the last after their amazing call, reminiscent of a child’s squeaky toy and delivered in a spectacular courtship flight that sees the bird roll and tumble in the air and occasionally almost fall to the ground before rising to begin the manoeuvre again. The noise made by the bird’s wings is thought to account for the “lap” in the common name.

From a distance, lapwings appear black and white but much of the dark plumage can be seen to be green in good light. Lapwings are quite large birds, almost the size of a jackdaw, and very sociable.

Just occasionally, a smallish flock passes over Kingston but very large numbers – aggregations of up to several hundred birds – are often to be seen on Lewes Brooks in winter around.

Reed bunting Emberiza schoenicus

Reed buntings don’t always live up to their name. Although they are mostly found in wet or marshy places, they disperse in winter and can breed in dry areas some way from water including cultivated fields (especially those planted with oilseed rape) and even conifer plantations.

A close relative of the yellowhammer (aka yellow bunting) reed buntings are just about larger than sparrows and in the winter, when the males lose their conspicuous breeding plumage (black head and neck with a contrasting white collar) not much more distinguished looking. However, both sexes retain white outer-tail feathers throughout the year. These are very obvious in flight and this field mark alone is enough to separate reed buntings from most other superficially similar-looking birds. Failing that, listen for their call – a soft “seep”, recalling that of yellow wagtail (although I appreciate that this is only useful if you know what noise a yellow wagtail makes!).

You can sometimes see a reed bunting or two along the stream (presumably the beginning of the Cockshut) that runs through Spring Barn Farm or on the Brooks themselves. Once in a while, though, they turn up on the lower parts of the Downs, usually in scrub.

Reed buntings are generally resident in Britain throughout the year, but a few birds ringed here have been recovered in Belgium and France. The species is common throughout northern and central Europe (and Asia indeed) and some individuals from Sweden pass through Britain on their way to wintering grounds even further south.

Unlike lapwings, reed buntings can and do turn up in rural gardens, feeding on grass seeds rather than at bird tables. One visited my parents’ former garden in Barnstaple and I live in hope of seeing one in Bramleys one day. Keep an eye out for them and let me know if you are lucky!

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