The Norwegian Connection: a tale of two journeys

One of the most visible birds on The Wash beaches must be the Oystercatcher. With its distinctive black and white plumage, orange bill and strident ‘kleep’ call, it’s certainly hard to miss! But where do ‘our’ Oystercatchers go when they leave The Wash? The map summarises the international movements of ‘our’ Oystercatchers – the red triangles are birds ringed abroad and found on The Wash, the blue dots are birds we ringed that were found abroad. It is clear that there is a really strong connection between The Wash and Norway – which is where most of the Oystercatchers wintering on The Wash go to breed. Most of these reports are of metal-ringed birds but, in recent years, we and other groups have used colour marks and tags to track movements in greater detail, and these sometimes produce very rapid feedback.

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Oystercatchers and shellfish

Back in the winter of 1992/93 Wash Group members noticed far more Oystercatchers than usual were feeding inland – on grass verges, in the middle of roundabouts and on the lawn at Sandringham. The Oystercatchers we caught had stopped moulting part way through, presumably to preserve energy and we found many hundreds of corpses on the shore. This led to an investigation of what had happened and, of course, the answer was complicated – but WWRG data helped to unravel the mystery. The Oystercatchers had encountered a ‘perfect storm’ of unusually cold weather combined with low stocks of both Mussels and Cockles – the preferred food of many of them – and a popular human food as well. Work with BTO, Eastern Inshore Fisheries & Conservation Authority (EIFCA, then the Eastern Sea Fisheries Joint Committee), the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) and Richard Stillman at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), showed the importance of balancing numbers of shellfish taken by the fishermen and the birds to ensure that there were sufficient for both as well as maintaining a breeding stock of shellfish, so that the supply continues. Understanding these balances, what might change them and how to react to changes (Adaptive Harvest Management) is a vital part of managing fisheries.

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Where in the mud?

The Wash is a special place. Fed by four rivers (the Great Ouse, Nene, Welland and Witham), it is one of Britain’s largest estuarine systems and home to a rich range of wildlife. In excess of half a million birds visit each year, either passing through on migration or spending the winter feeding on its extensive mudflats. It also supports a wide variety of human activities, from tourism to fisheries. Understanding where and how the birds use this vast larder is critical to designing effective ways of managing the estuary and its resources sustainably.

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Fieldwork February 2020

Weather forecast:

Storm Dennis!
Saturday – strong winds with showers
Sunday – strong winds with rain

Recce and plan for the weekend

The plan for the weekend was for a cannon-net catch on either Saturday or Sunday morning depending on the findings of the recce team on Friday morning. One of the aims for the weekend was a trial for catching waders on a non-spring tide – the tide heights were considerably lower than those for a normal catching weekend. Mist netting was not an option for the weekend due to the tide heights.

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