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News and views from St. Mary's Woodbridge
Issue 10 Winter 2009

Evolution on our doorstep

Suffolk wildlife often illustrates a particular feature of our temperate location namely, the presence of species from southern Europe in summer and from the Arctic in winter. Two examples of this occurred to me recently.

Snow Bunting

The Snow Bunting (pictured) is a smallish finch, mainly white and about the size of a Sparrow, which breeds in the Arctic it is the most northerly breeding passerine (perching bird). At the southern end of its breeding range a handful of pairs nest on the highest Scottish peaks and in June this year I found a male on a rock in a snow drift at over 4,000 feet in the Cairngorms, its liquid song fleetingly breaking the silence of the mountains. The Snow Buntings relevance to Suffolk is that in the autumn it descends from the mountains and the high Arctic to spend the winter on the remoter coasts of northern Europe small numbers come to Suffolk and they can be the highlight of winter walks at Dunwich or Walberswick.

Similarly, birds such as the Red Throated Diver, Goldeneye and Curlew which we saw nesting in Scotland in the summer are seen off our coast and in the estuaries in winter, as are many different species from Greenland to Siberia. Conversely, a variety of species come to Suffolk from the south. Some are colonising this area for the first time and I have written previously about the Little Egrets which are now commonplace on the Deben.

Other interesting arrivals in Suffolk are two species of Damselfly: the Willow Emerald found this year, mainly in the Deben valley at Woodbridge and Wickham Market, and almost certainly establishing itself as a regular breeding species in the UK for the first time, and yet another rare species, the Southern Emerald Damselfly, found in August, a first for Suffolk, by David and Ann Healey in their Felixstowe garden.

Why does it matter that these Emerald Damselflies are here and that Snow Buntings still breed in the highlands? Both are close relatives of other species which are common enough. There is the cogent scientific answer about the need for bio-diversity, but I think there is also a less tangible answer, which has to do with the sense of wonder we feel at being able to glimpse a tiny fragment of evolution actually happening before our eyes.