One of the nest sites

At least two breeding pairs

Last year we had a pair of lapwings lay a clutch of three eggs on an area next to Lark Rise Farm. This year we have at least two breeding pairs, as I discovered after completing the first of the long-running standardised bird survey. I counted five Lapwings as I walked past the same area that they nested in last year and made a special effort to determine the progress of the breeding attempt after I completed the formal count. 

Tuesday's bird survey was a beautiful warm sunny day. Finally, most of the ground has dried enough to walk around comfortably, but the lapwings have chosen the muddiest area possible for breeding. Although it doesn't belong to the CRT, this is a field farmed by our tenant farmer Tim Scott with the same care and attention to wildlife.

It is so muddy and so good for lapwings because the land-drains under the surface have broken or blocked, and the persistent winter rainfall has not drained away. During the winter, Tim drove the tractor across this wet ground to create some deep ruts which hold water and retain the muddy conditions, providing soft ground full of invertebrates that the lapwings (and, we hope, their chicks) can feed on. This area is the same place where they have nested for several years now, and I suspect that one of the pairs has been coming back since 2017.  

The lapwings started to claim their territories in mid-February. Farmer Tim spotted one just before the thaw and, by the end of the month, rose to a count of five. I spotted the first pair of lapwings, with another male scraping a nest at the start of March, whilst putting my camera skills to the test. I hope to photograph their development once, hopefully all, have hatched in the coming month.  

Surveying the nest sites

Subtle differences make it hard to
distinguish male and female lapwings
After I finished the bird survey, I used the land rover as a mobile bird hide to get closer to the nesting area without disturbing the birds. From here, I could look carefully at each lapwing to see if they were possibly nesting and, if so, work out exactly where each nest was based on lining up the bird with a distant landmark. 

The females do most of the incubation, so you need to look carefully at each bird to establish a female with a slightly duller plumage and a shorter crest. One was next to an obvious landmark, the only dock plant in the field, and it could be aligned with a distinctive blue shed in the background. Another lapwing sat in the middle of some of the tractor ruts. Elsewhere, three other lapwings sat in spots, but these were all males. 

The second nest sites 
Once I was confident where each nest was, I quickly walked towards them, discovering how deep the mud was, and keeping a good distance from each nest, took a quick photo. I marked the position, then retreated to the land rover – the birds returned and settled back to the nests. Doing this on a fine warm day runs no risk to the eggs, but I was a bit concerned about how muddy the eggs have got already, from the females' feet coming back to the nest. Too much mud can block the eggshell pores and prevent the embryos from breathing.

With three males and two females, we have a stronger colony than last year, which means a better chance for the adults to fend off crows. The deep mud is likely to deter mammalian predators like foxes from getting too close to the nests, so providing the eggs remain viable with their muddy crust, we have a good chance of hatching success. There is plenty of food close to the nests for the young. The 'spare' male will continue to display and try to tempt another female to join this colony, so I will keep checking on progress with fingers crossed that a third pair may form. 

If both pairs manage to raise one chick this year, population models suggest this will be sufficient to maintain a lapwing population. Anything higher than 0.7 chicks per pair per year has been calculated to help the population continue growing – only time will tell.

Dr Vince Lea
Head of Wildlife Monitoring