Caring for the county’s birdlife

PUBLISHED: 11:11 28 April 2015 | UPDATED: 11:11 28 April 2015

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for suff mag may 2015


Dunwich Heath is a haven for wild birds nesting on the Suffolk coast every spring thanks to the hard work of Richard Gilbert and the rest of the National Trust team who look after the nature reserve

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Every spring Suffolk’s long, sweeping coastline welcomes back species of wild birds from their summer retreats in warmer climates.

These join resident birds – different species that have remained in the country all year long – as the breeding season begins.

During this time Dunwich Heath, the nature reserve cared for by the National Trust, becomes a haven for ground-nesting birds who thrive in its rare heathland habitat.

Caring for that habitat is the responsibility of senior ranger Richard Gilbert and his team of conservation volunteers.

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“Everything we do is specifically for the benefit and well-being of the birds and other wildlife,” says Richard.

“Each season we map all the breeding birds, surveying them during early morning walks and marking their territories on maps. By doing this we can see whether the birds are increasing or decreasing year by year.

“Many of the species that breed here are quite rare as they only breed on heathland, which is in itself a rare habitat. In Britain we have important populations of these species so by looking after these birds we are ensuring their long term survival.”

During the breeding season, from March to September, trust rangers and volunteers make sure the birds are protected from accidental disturbance by talking to visitors about the importance of staying on the paths.

Jon Evans is one of Dunwich’s volunteers, with a lifetime’s experience of bird knowledge. Jon can be found on site very early in the morning throughout the bird breeding season, monitoring activity on the heath.

“Birds are particularly sensitive to disturbance during the breeding season, so I’m delighted to be part of a team who are taking such a proactive and positive approach to protecting wildlife,” says Jon.

“But Dunwich Heath is also a very popular destination and we really want to see people enjoying themselves, whether it is just having a nice walk, walking the dog or bird-watching.

“So we work really hard to strike a careful balance which takes into account the needs of both people and the wildlife they come to see.”

This conservation work is very important, because many species have significantly declined as their heathland habitat has been lost. Dunwich Heath remains a significant area of heathland (88 hectares) which forms part of a wider heathland area, being bordered by the RSPB Minsmere nature reserve.

Species such as the Dartford warbler and woodlark are categorised as Schedule 1 species, which affords them the highest protection by conservation law.

The Dartford warbler is a small dark bird with a long tail. Seen close up, males have a ruby red throat and a striking red eye-ring. The male’s song is a short metallic scratchy warble. On fine mornings these warblers can come surprisingly close to the paths affording quite special views.

The nightjar is a summer visitor to the heath and is mainly active between dusk and dawn. It is superficially hawk-like with long wings and tail. During the day it sits still on the ground or perched in a tree, relying on its camouflage to conceal it. But at dusk the male starts to sing, known as ‘churring’.

“It is a strange, eerie and mechanically sounding churr that once heard is never forgotten,” says Richard. “We record numbers of breeding nightjar by surveying the number of churring males we hear. It is wonderful to hear the churring as dusk falls and even get brief glimpses of the birds hunting for large insects.”

To help people make the most of their visit, the team at Dunwich have produced a new app, which can be downloaded prior to arrival and used on a mobile phone or other device while exploring the reserve.

“We noticed more and more visitors using smart technology so we thought it would be a great idea to create an app, so that people can find out all about Dunwich Heath, its wildlife, walks and so on.

“But we wanted there to be a two way interaction, where the visitors can help us look after the reserve as well. There is an option to tell us what has been spotted, send us pictures, ask us questions and report problems or concerns,” says Richard.

The app is free to download on android and Apple – just search for Dunwich Heath.

But remember the best advice for anyone wanting to responsibly enjoy the beauty of Dunwich Heath and its birdlife is quite simple – stay on the paths.

“We have a wide network of accessible clearly marked footpaths which will allow everyone to explore the wildlife without accidentally causing any damage or disturbance to the birds or their nests,” says Richard.

Dunwich boasts some of the county’s most spectacular birdlife and can be enjoyed throughout the year, from dawn to dusk. The tea room and shop are open seven days a week, generally from 10am to 5pm.

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