Daily Archives: July 17, 2012

The iconic avocet

‘Iconic’ is a word that is overused, but in the case of the avocet it is entirely appropriate. Those of you from the UK – and possibly some of you from further afield – may know that in the UK the avocet is the emblem of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – the RSPB.

A trio of avocet feeding on the water at RSPB Titchwell as a pair of swift hunt winged insects just overhead

The avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta, Dansk: klyde) had all but died out – in fact it may have totally died out – in the UK in the 19th century, but in the 1940’s a breeding population from the European mainland re-established itself when the coastal mudflats along the east coast of England were flooded as a defensive measure against a possible German invasion. So there you go, just occasionally something good can result from a war!

Avocet can be seen breeding on the east coast of England in the summer, and they are resident in the southwest during the winter, they are also winter and passage visitors. It is therefore an early symbol of conservation success and it was originally adopted by the RSPB in 1955 as the their symbol to adorn the new RSPB tie. Its continued success led it to be adopted as the RSPB logo in 1970. They are beautiful birds and they can be pretty feisty when it comes to guarding their territory.

The long upturned beak of the avocet, from which it gets it’s generic name, ‘Recurvirostra’, along with its black and white plumage makes it completely unmistakable. I have seen avocet before but not in such numbers and not so close and it was only on this trip that I realised they have very distinctive pale blue legs. So all in all it’s a very striking bird.

The upturned bill has a functional aspect too. It is the upper mandible which is curved and the avocet use it to stir up the sediment by sweeping it across the surface from side to side dislodging crustaceans, insects and worms which they detect by touch. The one below had captured a meal and the dark shadow just in front of its beak is a cloud of sediment churned up by the scything beak.

As with just about every species on the planet, including humans, the main threat to the avocet comes from inconsiderate human activity including reclamation of wetlands, depletion of water levels in rivers, infrastructure development and pollution by polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s), insecticides and heavy metals. Despite that, the global population is estimated to be between 210-460,000 individuals. It’s unclear if those numbers are stable, but as some populations decline others are increasing. So hopefully they’re OK for the time being.

I’ve been up to my eyeballs in non-blogging stuff in the last month so I’ve been struggling to keep up to date with all your blogs. The pace is unlikely to let up before September but I’ll try to visit as many as I can in the meantime. I will be back!

Apodidae – the swift

Last month I spent a day at the RSPB reserve at Titchwell near Hunstanton on the north Norfolk coast. It’s a particularly dramatic bit of coastline and is home to a very impressive array of birdlife which is concentrated here on the reserve. As well as all the waders and other water birds squadrons of swifts were wheeling and zooming low over the water plucking insects out of the air.


Swift – Apus apus. Dansk – mursejler

Swifts have been declining in numbers and their conservation status is amber, but it was difficult to believe they’re struggling! There seem to be good numbers of them in the skies around Cambridge too. I love it in the summer when I open a window and the sound of shrieking swifts filters down from on high.

Insects beware, bandits at 6 o’clock!

Photographing swifts in flight is challenging to say the least and something I’ve never before had much success with, but there were so many of them at Titchwell and they were flying close to the ground so I gave it a go. They seemed to have preferred routes which I guess were dictated by where the insects were flying and that made getting pictures a little less tricky as their flight paths were more predictable. And here are the results.

Swifts are members of the Apodidae family and on ther face of it appear fairly similar to swallows and martins. But my oft ill-remembered scchoolboy Latin leads me to believe that ‘apodidae‘ means ‘lacking feet‘ whereas swallows and martins are passerines which means they have feet adapted for perching. Swifts do have feet but they are tiny and adapted for clasping and not perching, all four of their toes pointing forward. One thing that the three species do have in common is that they are all awesome aeronauts. A juvenile swift can spend up to three years aloft after fledging and it will spend most of its life on the wing: eating, sleeping, gathering nesting material and even copulating in the sky.

According to the British Trust for Ornithology swifts shut down their brains one side at a time in order to maintain stable flight. But I’d like to know how they found that out – I can’t think of an experimental design that would enable this conclusion!

The swift is a summer migrant to UK shores and they spend their winters in South Africa, and I suspect the journey doesn’t take too long, covering a thousand miles in a couple of days!

My day at Titchwell was gorgeous, it was during the foul wet weather we’ve been having but shortly after we arrived the sun emerged and stayed with us for the whole day. I took nearly a thousand photographs and I’m going to post the best of them in batches in the next few weeks, interspersed with some other local wildlife. I hope you like them!