The Zoologist/4th series, vol 1 (1897)/Issue 677/The Inland Breeding of the Ringed Plover in Norfolk and Suffolk

The Inland Breeding of the Ringed Plover in Norfolk and Suffolk (1897)
by William George Clarke
4072928The Inland Breeding of the Ringed Plover in Norfolk and Suffolk1897William George Clarke


By W.G. Clarke.

The Ringed Plover is chiefly known to ornithologists as a bird of the sea-shore, where its exceeding rapid movements and inconspicuous colouring render it difficult of observation. By far the greater number nest in such localities, but year by year, even before the return of spring, a small band migrate inland, and on the heaths and warrens of the Norfolk and Suffolk "breck" district undertake domestic responsibilities. It is a difficult task to estimate with any degree of accuracy the numbers of these heath-loving birds, but it cannot be very large. So far as I have been able to ascertain personally or by correspondence the Ringed Plovers only nest in eight localities in Thetford district, although they are likewise found in the Lark valley. These are Lakenheath, Wangford and Thetford Warrens, and Thetford, Barnham, Santon Downham, Wretham and Roudham Heaths. The two first named are on the border of the fenland, and Wangford Warren seems to be most favoured in point of numbers. Two or three pairs respectively are all that seem to nest upon Thetford, Barnham, Wretham, and Roudham Heaths. Previous to the spring of 1897 the latter was unknown to me as a breeding locality of the Ringed Plover; but three pairs then occupied a small "breck" in a corner of the heath. From the accounts we possess, it would seem that the Ringed Plover has become sadly diminished of late years in its local breeding haunts. Salmon termed them "very abundant" at Thetford in 1836. In 1863 they were "seen in small numbers" at Elveden, presumably on Thetford Heath, the locality they now occupy.

Certain theories have been advanced to account for the inland nesting of this bird; but that of Prof. Newton, the late Dr. Hind, of Honington, Suffolk, and other eminent authorities, seems most worthy of credence. Their supposition was that the Wash extended as far inland as Brandon; Wangford and Lakenheath being on its shores. They likewise thought that an arm of the Wash extended along the valley of the Little Ouse to Thetford, and that consequently the present breeding-places of the Ringed Plover were coast sands in the post-glacial epoch. And year by year hereditary instinct has brought the warren-haunting Plovers inland, which led the first President of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists' Society to hazard the opinion in 1879 that with the death of the last of the heath-loving Plovers would cease altogether the inland appearance of that species. If the diminution in numbers of the Ringed Plover be not general amongst the shore birds, it would tend to further substantiate this opinion. In addition to the Ringed Plover, numerous species of plants and insects peculiar to the sand-dunes of the coast are found upon these inland heaths.[1] The place-names of the district strengthen the theory that the Wash formerly extended as far as Brandon. It is extremely suggestive to note that the sandy heath at Elveden whereon the Ringed Plovers breed is still known as the "denes." This is the name applied on the Norfolk coast to the low sand-hills, and is synonymous with "dune." Although on the slope of a valley up which an arm of the Wash might at one time have possibly extended, the nearest stream is now more than a mile distant. The other breeding-places mentioned in the district would all have bordered upon an arm of the sea extending up the Little Ouse valley, except those on Roudham and Wretham Heaths; but neither of these would be more than four miles from the nesting-place on Santon Downham Heath. With so many other heaths and warrens in the district, it seems strange that their range should be so limited. In addition to the coast insects and plants found in these inland localities, Helix virgata and other species usually considered littoral abound.

J.D. Salmon, F.L.S., recorded the date of their first arrival as February 16th, 1834; February 5th, 1835; February 15th, 1836; and February 14th, 1837. They have, however, been seen as early as February 7th. Ringed Plovers were numerous on March 13th, 1835; commenced laying on April 1st; a nest with four eggs found on June 5th, and all departed by August 30th. In the following year they were again numerous on March 13th, but took their departure a week earlier, on August 23rd. Personally I have never seen them on Thetford Warren before March; but this doubtless arises from my limited opportunities of observation, rather than from a later inland migration. Clutches of two eggs have been found by March 30th. Nest there is none, as a rule, the merest hollow in the sand being utilised. Very rarely there are a few short pieces of dried grass. September 1st is the latest date on which the Ringed Plovers have been seen in the district. Their departure is usually taken about mid-August, which accounts for the local remark that they "go with the Cuckoos." The Ringed Plover is known locally as the "Stonehatch" or "Ring Dotterel," the former being more generally used. It is worthy of mention that the bracken-covered areas of our large warrens are not beloved of the Ringed Plover, but that it haunts stone-covered patches which are perfectly open. In such spots it is almost impossible to discover the Ringed Plover when motionless; when running the eye is attracted by the action. If one wanders too near the nest both birds will fly round and round the intruder's head, uttering their short mellow whistle. And if there should be nestlings they will feign a broken wing—anything to draw attention to themselves rather than their young. These tactics, however, are not always successful, and the men who can always find the nest of a Lapwing by the actions of the hen bird, can in like manner find that of the Ringed Plover; and I fear that even these eggs are sold, with those of Black-headed Gulls, Snipe, and sundry others, as "Plovers' eggs."

  1. Vide paper "On Certain Coast Insects found extending inland at Brandon, Suffolk." By G.C. Barrett, Trans. of the Norf. and Nor. Nat. Soc., vol. i., 1870, p. 61, and 1871, p. 40. Also notes in the same Transactions on coast-plants found inland by Messrs. H.D. Geldart and Clement Reid, F.G.S.

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