Winter sees many more birds than summer, but among the breeders Common Terns (Sterna hirundo, wingspan 90cm), Sandwich Terns (Sterna sandvicensis, wingspan 100cm) and Little Terns (Sterna albifrons, wingspan 52cm) have always been a delight, especially along the Norfolk coast. However, in places they are facing increasing difficulties in finding food because of the overfishing of their principal prey, Lesser Sandeels (Ammodytes marinus), together with the effects of warmer seas, which are forcing some fish species further north.
Common Terns are plentiful (around 13,000 pairs) and more adaptable than the other two species, since they can and do nest by inland waters. Most are on the coast, though, with East Anglia a stronghold.
All Terns are migratory and all nest on open ground, making them vulnerable to predation by foxes among others, which has happened particularly to Little Terns. They can muster only 2,500 pairs nowadays compared with a former high of 10,000 pairs. Southern England has always been less well endowed than other parts.
With up to 15,000 pairs, Sandwich Terns have made a fine comeback after being all but wiped out in the 19th century. They are erratic nesters, breeding in good numbers in a location one year then deserting it for no apparent reason the following season.
Fulmars (Fulmaris glacialis, wingspan 110cm), which can propel a foul-smelling oily substance through their beaks as a defensive tactic, put even terns in the shade with their aerobatic expertise. Skilfully and even delicately they use updraughts around the cliffs where they nest but are also capable of coping with terrible conditions out at sea where they spend nearly all the year.
They are also remarkable in terms of the colonisation of Britain which they have achieved in a very short time, since there were none here in 1850 and now there are around a million, albeit with a slight decline since 1990. These are mostly in the north, a comment which can be applied with even greater emphasis to the most attractive members of the gull family, Kittiwakes (Ryssa tridactyla, wingspan 105cm).
In Yorkshire and further north they have suffered poor breeding seasons this century due to adverse weather and a shortage of food, but one of their recent new colonies at Seaford in Sussex has been thriving, with more than 700 nests - unlike other gulls, Kittiwakes construct a cup-shaped nest as the picture, taken a long way from lowland England in Iceland, shows. They, too, spend most of their time at sea.
Shelducks (Tadorna tadorna, wingspan 120cm) are essentially coastal birds and unmistakable with their mixture of white, black, brown, green and red colouring. They are monogamous and breed mainly in the north but there are some in East Anglia and southern coastal counties, while a good number spend the winter in southern England.
They feed by sweeping the beak through mud and can be decidedly aggressive in the breeding season, though more gregarious at other times. The hatchlings are usually assembled in large groups in nurseries in the summer, with only a handful of adults looking after them while the rest - up to 100,000 from all over northern Europe - fly to the Waddensee to moult.
Meadow Pipits (Anthus pratensis, wingspan 23cm) are found on the coast as well as inland, with dune systems providing ideal cover and plenty of food for nestlings. The average clutch is five and the pictured bird and its mate were seen ferrying caterpillars and other prey to the nest for half an hour in July.
Wheatears (Oenanthe oenanthe, wingspan 30cm) are bonny birds which used to be much commoner than they are now, with at least 20,000 taken for the pot near Eastbourne annually at the end of the 18th century.
Ploughing downland after World War II increased what was already a decline and although they are still to be found in parts of the south-east, including on the coast when migrating and sometimes breeding, they are found mainly in upland regions. They can breed in almost any habitat, including shingle, sand dunes and cliff tops.
Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus, wingspan 100cm) are one of a number of species of raptor which capitalise on the presence of migratory or wintering birds on the coast, though the Peregrine tends to nest in this environment as well because of its preference for cliffs. They are also nesting increasingly in cities, on office buildings or flats - the urban equivalents of cliffs.
In 1962 Peregrines were down to 62 pairs across the UK, owing to persecution in the war and the insidious effects of pesticides, but there are now more than 1,000 breeding pairs in Britain (mostly in the north), which outscores everywhere except Spain in western Europe. The Peregrine pictured above is captive.
The vulnerability of The Wash, which covers 63,000 hectares, to human activity came into sharp focus in 2006 thanks to our largest duck, the strictly maritime and exceptionally handsome Eider (Somateria mollisima, wingspan 90cm). Around 200,000 pairs breed in Britain, in the north, but 75,000 winter here with 3,000 or so on The Wash. This is important for the species given a decline that has been occurring elsewhere.
The Wash boasts internationally important populations of nine species of waterfowl, three species of gull, three species of tern and 15 species of wader. It is a Ramsar wetland site under the international Ramsar Convention, a Special Protection Area under the EU's 1979 Birds Directive and a Special Area of Conservation under the EU's 1992 Habitats Directive. It is also Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
You may very well think that all this would guarantee the site's safety, but according to Natural England almost 25 per cent of The Wash is in unfavourable condition. One cause of this is over-fishing of shellfish on what has been described quite reasonably as an industrial scale. The RSPB claims that birds which eat shellfish, including Oystercatchers, Knot and Pintails, have dropped in number by more than 100,000 in the area in the last 30 years.
Given the peculiarities of bird movements down the decades, placing the blame for this drop on one element is probably unwise. However, mechanised dredging for cockles, plus shrimp and mussel fishing at unsustainable levels, certainly have not helped. They are merely the maritime equivalent of the deleterious intensive agriculture which did so much to denude our countryside of flora and fauna in the 1950s and 1960s.
From the early 1980s, excessive removal of shellfish resulted in their numbers dropping dramatically. To compensate, fishermen promptly created artificial mussel beds, usually translocating 'seeds' from elsewhere in The Wash, causing a further reduction in natural stocks and endangering or sadly prolonging recovery.
The local Eiders have been taking advantage of this free food, with the result that the fishermen put in a request to be allowed to use electronic scarers to keep the birds away. At a public enquiry in June 2006, the request quite rightly was denied.
Despite some ill-conceived remarks by the losing side, sustainable fisheries are quite possible on The Wash given the will and some planning. This has been proved on the Waddensee in Holland, also under threat from overfishing a few years ago.
If we can avoid a dialogue of the deaf and persuade the fishermen and environmental interests to sit around a table without drawing knives, a solution acceptable and profitable to all can surely be arrived at.
Images © Jeremy Early. All rights reserved.
In 2013 I published My Side of the Fence - the Natural History of a Surrey Garden. Details may be found, and orders placed, via this hyperlink My Side of the Fence. In November 2015 Surrey Wildlife Trust published the atlas Soldierflies, their allies and Conopidae of Surrey, jointly written by David Baldock and me. Details are on this web page: Atlas.