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 Lapwing - Fact File

Summer male (left), adult winter

Vanellus vanellus
Common but declining resident. In winter many more birds arrive from the continent.
Breeds on farmland, wet meadows and moors. More widespread in winter.

Familiar wader with prominent crest and broad rounded wings. Well-known peewit call (Peewit is old country name for this bird)..

30 cm (12")


Wading birds have always specially appealed to me and I shall long remember the events at Breydon Water in 1992 when phenomenal totals of lapwing carpeted the estuary.

The scene was remarkable. As the tide ebbed, packs of lapwing stretched the width of Breydon from the main river to the north shore. Estimating totals seemed almost impossible, but there must have been over 20,000 birds. All were content to doze away the short winter day before resorting to nocturnal feeding on the adjoining marshes.

I was fortunate to witness this spectacle: within 48 hours numbers had rapidly declined following over-night frost.

During the second week in December 1992 legions of lapwings again descended on the tideway. But how many? The agreed estimate of 40,000 made the total not only of international importance, but one of the largest recorded in this country according the authoritative 'Birds of the Western Palearctic'. Not content with a single session, I made a return visit following an exceptionally high tide.

As expected a high proportion of the lapwing army had repaired to Halvergate levels. Here the birds were restless, repeatedly undertaking aerial reconnaissances. Yet hundreds packed the highest saltings at no distance from the public observation hide.

As the mudflats reappeared they were rapidly populated with thousands of lapwing. The massed birds extended from the vicinity of the new road bridge to Rotten Eye corner. Towards sunset the shallow waters, packed with birds, left by the receding tide reflected the orange western sky. With the light fast fading the lapwings began returning to feed on the adjoining grazing levels.

Lapwing in flightBattalion upon battalion lifted from the flats before swirling like autumn leaves high into the darkening sky. Ranks closed and the birds swept over the estuary, rising and falling, packed together. Again they climbed, flickering silhouettes against a fiery afterglow and reminiscent of a Peter Scott painting. Finally, all turned, slowly glided and pitched down, poising with uplifted wings momentarily before merging into the dusk. The performance was unforgettable.

Lapwings provide complex migratory patterns. Dispersal from breeding areas begins in June or even late May. This involves birds from the Baltic and central Europe. These movements continue through the summer and merge with true migration during September. Earliest travellers are chiefly adults. Perhaps warm dry summers in their regions of origin bake the ground and impede feeding. Passage continues until November, the birds heading for Spain, Portugal and North Africa.

This country provides the northernmost regular wintering areas and is particularly important for Scandinavian birds. But when out marshes and fields are frozen the lapwings move westward into Ireland. Here they linger until normal spring passage. On occasions westerly weather movements lead to some lapwings overshooting Ireland during a vigorous easterly airflow and crossing the Atlantic.

The lapwing's aerial mastery is really appreciated in nuptial flight. Long before the winter flocks begin dispersing and provided weather conditions are reasonable, the males commence their wild aerial dances accompanied by plaintive whistling. Each male sweeps round in a wide circle before suddenly soaring upwards. As it rapidly hurtles earthwards, it turns and twists and throws rounded wings anywhere, but never loses control.

At close quarters you will note that the lapwing is not really black and white although looking so in flight. Iridescent purple-green upperparts and rich chestnut patches above and below the tail contrive to give a truly handsome appearance. Well worth watching, lapwing spread apart to feed, each bird running short distances then pausing to watch for any movement. Black-headed gulls often harass lapwings, snatching food whenever opportunities occur.

Michael J. Seago

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.