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find out more... Purple Cloud  Actinotia polyodon Copyright: Graham Ekins

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Wed 12th January 2011 17:11 by Graham Smith
Life returns
January 10th 2011 : Blue House Farm EWT Reserve, North Fambridge : After December's deep freeze comes the thaw. The crust of snow and ice that covered the fields and fleets a few weeks ago has been replaced by puddles of water and the squelch of mud, forcing visitors to hop from ridge to ridge or - if they are sensible enough to wear wellies - splash across the furrows of the old ploughlines in the Flat Fields as they make their way round the reserve. Worms and other invertebrates, driven deep underground by the frost, have been forced back towards the surface as the lighter soils above the London Clay become waterlogged. Birds have been quick to exploit this change in fortunes : whereas a week or two ago many were hovering on the brink of starvation as they struggled to find food in a landscape where even the saltings were covered in ice, now there is food a plenty. Many, including most of the area's wintering Lapwing and Golden Plover fled south and west out of necessity at the onset of the cold weather. Often at such times they head for the slightly warmer climes of south-western England and Ireland but as conditions there were as bad, if not worse, than in the east during December most probably moved on to France, Spain, or even Italy. This is bad news for them as Michael Shrubb, in his monograph on the Lapwing (2007), comments that even in this day and age up to a million are shot in these countries each winter, a slaughter bordering on the criminal given that this species is declining in most parts of its breeding range. The thought that some of the Lapwing chicks which I watched with trepidation last summer as they struggled through the five long weeks from hatching to fledging may have ended up on a French gourmet's plate is not a happy one!

Now they are back, or at least the Lapwing are (the Golden Plover have yet to follow suit), over 3000 crowding the pasture fields close to the farm house in recent days along with 2000 or more Starlings (many, no doubt, visitors from the Russian steppe), 500 Rooks, 200 Black-tailed Godwit and 100 Curlew while Round Marsh, the fifty acre field that is deliberately flooded each winter, freed of ice for the first time in over a month, was smothered in feeding wildfowl, 2500 Wigeon, 1200 Teal and 200 Pintail among them. They presented a fest of life guaranteed (one hopes) to raise the glummest spirit on a grey winter's day when all other life seems to be dormant.

It was not only the lives of Lapwing and Golden Plover that were disrupted by the plunge in temperatures during December, many other species were displaced from their usual winter haunts. There was an exceptional influx of grey geese into Essex, especially White-fronts, with up to 400 on Wallasea and 160 at Blue House. With them came several Bean Geese and a few Pink-feet while at Blue House the resident flock of Canada/Barnacle hybrids were joined by around 50 pure bred Barnacles, the presence of a colour ringed bird amongst them suggesting that these were genuinely wild rather than feral birds. The wintering flocks of Dark-bellied Brent Geese, which breed in Western Siberia, were also joined by several of their Pale-bellied cousins from Greenland and Svalbard. All these birds could have arrived from ice covered haunts elsewhere in Britain but some at least had probably fled the polders of Holland, where temperatures were on a par with those in Scotland. Such movements were commonplace in the harsh winters of the 1970s and 1980s but have seldom occured during the much milder version of the past two decades.

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