Girton Birdwatch - August 2013
I know I've mentioned many times before how lucky we are around here to be attracting, not just as visitors but as breeding pairs, birds which are more readily associated with the Mediterranean. Little Egrets, the birds which inspired concerned women in 1885 to form the Plumage League in protest against the use of birds' feathers and stuffed bodies for the decoration of hats and dresses, and which was to become the Society (later Royal) for the Protection of Birds in 1889, are now commonplace. Purple Heron have bred here as have Cattle Egret. Night Heron are regular visitors and may well be the next member of the heron family to make a serious attempt at colonisation.
I was prompted to write this by bumping into Dave Heath who had just returned from the Cam Washes where he'd watched a Great White Egret cruising down the river from the direction of Wicken Fen. He's since encountered another bird - or it may have been the same one - in the same vicinity so there may well be a breeding pair about. The Great White has bred in the UK, the first time in 2012, so this is not beyond the bounds of possibility. If you are vaguely familiar with Little or Cattle Egrets and think that you might have seen a Great White then the chances are you haven't! The Great White is an impressive bird and much larger than its smaller cousins. It's about the size of a Grey Heron, has a remarkably long bill, narrow head and slender neck. Its bill is yellow (as is the Cattle Egret's but the Cattle Egrets is much chunkier) while the Little Egret's is dark, although the clincher is that the Great White has dark coloured legs and lacks the yellow feet, should you be able to see them, of the Little Egret (the Cattle Egret doesn't have yellow feet either, to make matters more difficult/easier!).
The establishment of the Great Fen can only encourage the further colonisation of these different marsh-loving birds. Members of the bittern family may also be attracted to this area. This June the RSPB has set up guard on the nest of a pair of Little Bitterns at its Ham Wall Reserve in Somerset. This bird first bred in Yorkshire in 1984, but it wasn't until 2010 that it bred next, in the Somerset reed beds. Breeding has been suspected since but the birds are definitely nesting this year and, as very rare and special birds, they qualify for special measures to protect them. The RSPB's reserve at Ham Wall shares many similarities with our own Great Fen project as it is part of a huge and ambitious plan to create a vast area of wetlands in the Brue valley. Tony Whitehead, a RSPB representative, has said of this project: 'Having Little Bittern breeding at Ham Wall demonstrates the power of landscape-scale nature conservation. If you get the conditions right, the birds will turn up [L]arge, well-managed wetlands can act as beacons for colonising species, such as Little Bittern. They are crucial in helping these species adapt to our changing climate.'
Another 'bird' that is proving difficult to see this year - the Little Bittern is a skulking, secretive creature - is the ladybird, particularly the very familiar 7-spot. This charming insect is a well-loved part of our natural scene. It is said its name dates back to the Middle Ages and to the cult of the Virgin Mary, in which red probably represented the blood of Christ, and which incorporated the mystic number seven: the Seven Joys and Seven Sorrows of Mary. So the common 7-spot Ladybird conveyed to the medieval mind a divine message - that the beetle was blessed by heaven as a kind of angelic insect, and bringer of joy and sorrow in equal measure.
When I was a lad we all knew and recited the surprisingly dark rhyme:
Fly away home,
Your house is on fire,
And your children are gone.'
Versions of this rhyme are to be found throughout Europe and appear to have deep cultural and historical roots. In many societies, too, it is thought to be bad luck to harm a ladybird.
There are 53 British species of ladybirds of which 28 are the familiar brightly coloured spotted ones. They are the gardener's and allotmenteers friend because of their voracious appetite where black- and green-flies are concerned - insects which this year seem to have reached plague proportions if my broad beans and chard are anything to go by. Of course, the presence of large numbers of aphids and the absence of ladybirds are related, perhaps more closely and less obviously than it may at first appear. The problem started last year when the heavy summer rains devastated the aphid population which provides food for the larvae as well as the adult 7-spots. This meant that reduced numbers of the ladybird went into the dormant phase over the winter and, as only a certain proportion survive the cold months, numbers have been drastically reduced this spring and summer. This is ironic given that the 7-spot, and other ladybirds, seemed to have emerged victorious from the battle with an aggressive (and larger) foreign invader, the Harlequin ladybird. The Harlequin has been blamed for the decline in number of native species because it takes over their habitats and eats their food (7-spots need to eat 60 aphids a day). Numbers of the 2-spot ladybird have declined by 45% since the Harlequin came to Britain in 2004.
Equally ironically a small number of our native ladybirds, such as the Orange and 24-spot ladybirds, have thrived despite, or because of, the wet conditions. These ladybirds feed on mildew, which proliferates in moist weather conditions and hence the insects flourish. The good news - if you like ladybirds and it's difficult not to - is that the huge numbers of aphids busily sucking and munching their way through our vegetable crops mean that the potential for the 7-spot to recover rapidly is very much enhanced, if not this year then perhaps next.
Finally, if this hot weather continues as the forecasters say it is going to, don't forget to put out water for the birds; they need this much more than food at times like these.