Little Ringed Plover – Testwood Lakes, Hampshire

After mowing the lawn and walking the dogs I drove over to Testwood Lakes, a 60-hectare nature reserve on the northwest edge of Southampton. It is managed by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust although the three lakes are owned by Southern Water. The main Testwood Lake is used for boating activities and Little Testwood for coarse fishing. It is the northern part of the area which includes Meadow Lake that is less disturbed and better for wildlife. Wader scrapes consistenting of shallow pools and gravel islands have been constructed between Testwood and Meadow Lakes.

I parked in Hillstreet and took the footpath into the reserve and walked to the screens which are on the southern side of the wader scrapes. There was another birder present and from a ‘social distance’ he pointed out where the Little Ringed Plover nest was.

Both parent birds were a short distance from the nest and feeding actively. The dainty long-legged appearance, white crown band, striking yellow eye-ring and all dark bill are the features which separate adult Little Ringed Plover from Ringed Plover.  The male creates several unlined shallow scrapes and the female choses her favourite. The nest was completely out in the open and as normal for Little Ringed Plover was on an area of dry bare ground.  It probably contained four eggs.

A Great White Egret approached and both parent birds walked quickly away from the nest area in as conspicuous a manner as possible. This distraction display also included bobbing up and down, wing fluttering and feigning injury. The egret pursued and the immediate the danger to the nest reduced. Once the excitement had quietened down the female returned to the nest and started to brood changing position several times until she was comfortable. Both sexes share incubation.

Laying eggs in such exposed locations is fraught with danger and there are high losses to predation from foxes and corvids and also from rising water levels. To help with these immediate dangers the developing young spend a very long 25 days in the egg and are born with excellent eyesight and almost fully developed legs. At only a few hours old the chicks can respond to moving objects like prey items and soon aftwerwards run around feeding themselves picking insects from the surface of damp ground. They crouch flat or run into the edge of cover when they hear their parents’ alarm call.

Little Ringed Plover first bred in the UK in 1938 and they colonised quickly thereafter. More than half of all nests are on sand and gravel pits and the margins of other static water bodies like here at Testwood. It is still fairly uncommon in Hampshire, however, with only 13 pairs raising 31 young in 2018. A pair at Testwood Lakes was unsuccessful. The year before there were two pairs at Testwood Lakes with one pair nesting but again no young fledged from here. Fingers crossed for better results in 2020.

I returned three weeks later, on Tuesday 9th June, to see how the Little Ringed Plover were doing. There was no activity around the nest area, perhaps they had abandoned the nest, for some reason, and the adult birds had moved on. The menacing Great White Egret was still present and he had already shown that he was a little too interested in the plover nest, I feared the worst. Two Egyptian Geese were resting at the water’s edge. A Mute Swan had four cygnets and the Lapwing chicks were looking more and more like adult birds. The thriving colony of Sand Martins provided a constant wheeling movement of birds as a backdrop.

I then noticed one of the adult Little Ringed Plover. It was feedingly happily, foot-trembling. This is where they stand on one leg and vibrate the other foot to make the sand more liquid-like and easier to penetrate for food. Shortly afterwards I noticed a chick! I couldn’t help letting out a quietly shouted ‘yes!!’ What a great relief. It looked a little older than the Little Ringed Plover chicks I had seen at Pennington two days ago. I then noticed a 2nd chick and more quiet celebration followed. I decided to add some chick sketches to the sketches of the adults I’d made three weeks ago.

I’ve been feeling an increased level of parental worry about chicks like these over the spring. We’ve had a Robin nesting in an abandoned nest box almost on the ground in the alleyway next to the gate, a very unlikely place. Sarah had first noticed it while tidying up some pots, she picked up an old nest box and a Robin shot out. She quickly placed it back where it was, retreated, and the Robin soon returned.

Over the next month we monitored progress from the conservatory window and 13 days later the first chick hatched. We helped them by providing re-hydrated meal worms, which they loved, and 14 days later they successfully fledged six young, a very good number for a Robin pair.

I then didn’t see the young Robins in the garden again and so a couple of weeks later I walked along the path at the back of our house. I took my binoculars with me and I carefully tracked down anything that sounded like a calling fledgeling. I was thrilled to find three of ‘our’ young Robins on one branch together and another calling nearby.

This emotional ‘parenting’ had made me extra proud to see these young Little Ringed Plovers, I just hope they can survive the next few weeks and manage the journey south for the winter possibly ending up anywhere in a band from Senegal to Sudan.

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