Birdwatch: listening to the lapwing’s ‘peewit’ ring out over Somerset Levels

At the age of nine, a friend took me to a meadow on the outskirts of my suburban village, and showed me a lapwing’s nest. More than 50 years later, I can still visualise the clutch of four buffish-olive eggs, heavily blotched with dark brown, hidden in a tussock on the ground.

I can’t recall the birds themselves: no doubt they were circling frantically above us, uttering their piercing, high-pitched alarm call. Since then, I’ve heard this sound, often rendered as “peewit” – one of the lapwing’s many folk names – countless times.

Here on the Somerset Levels, the lapwings are out in force. A few weeks ago, while witnessing the starling murmurations at RSPB Ham Wall, I watched several thousand coming in to roost, zigzagging rapidly down to the water as if they had momentarily lost control of their wings. I suspect these are refugees from West Sedgemoor, which has flooded more than usual this winter, thanks to the heavy rains.

Both the lapwing’s English name and scientific name – Vanellus vanellus – refer to its distinctive flight: vanellus means “little fan”, while “lapwing” derives from the Old English for “leap with a flicker” – from the way the black-and-white wings flash as the birds pass overhead. A closer look reveals that they aren’t actually black at all, but a subtle combination of iridescent greens and purples, like a patch of oil shimmering briefly in the sun.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *