An update on the ongoing Curlew Meadows project, from Mike Smart.
A good deal has happened in the Curlew population of the Severn and Avon Vales in the last couple of weeks, so I thought it was time for an update.
Firstly, a disappointment: we have not succeeded in re-sighting the ringed bird, possibly one of those raised from eggs at Slimbridge in 2019, so cannot say whether this really is a bird returning to the Vales to breed; it may still be found, so we are keeping a careful watch.
The Coombe Hill public enquiry continues (its final session will be on World Curlew Day, 21 April), and the Inspector’s report and decision is not expected for some weeks afterwards.
The weather has remained very dry, though those watching Curlew at first light have noted the very sharp early morning frosts; this may have delayed nesting a little. The communal night roosts noted in March have declined in importance, most of them now holding birds only in single figures, as the birds begin to spend the night close to their nest sites. Pairs of birds have been seen walking together (the grass has not yet grown too high, though it will do so very soon). They often indulge in courtship chasing, where the male chases the female at some speed, its wings raised and quivering; this is sometimes, but not by any means always, followed by mating. Some have already begun laying: a first nest was found on 13 April, a nest with a single egg, giving a good indication of the date of first laying.
We expect the nest formation and egg-laying to speed up considerably in the next few days. We shall be aiming to find as many nests as possible, both by traditional fieldcraft (watching them back to their nests from a distance with a telescope) and by using heat-seeking drones to identify nest sites.
The biggest development has been in catching Curlews, for colour ringing. To understand their behaviour and actions, we need to be able to distinguish one individual from another, which means marking them with colour rings that can be read in the field. Our previous attempts to catch them with mist nets at roosts were unsuccessful, so we have been trying a different technique, with the help of Tony Cross from the Mid-Wales Ringing Group and the Curlew Country project. Tony uses a “whoosh net”, which is a placed flat net on the ground, propelled by strong elastic; the birds are attracted in by a stuffed decoy Curlew and by recordings of the bird’s song. It is extraordinary to see how rapidly the birds react to an apparent intruder in their territory – the males especially, but we have also caught several females. You set up the net, retreat to the car, pull the string, and almost every time, catch a bird.
So far, we have caught five adults in Gloucestershire, while Tony has caught another three in Herefordshire. The Gloucestershire birds are marked with a yellow inscribed ‘flag’, each one different from the other, and easier to read than the rather small rings used on the 2019 Slimbridge birds. We hope to catch more in the coming days, marking some with flags, but also marking some with satellite tags, so that we get even more information on their movements.
Finding Curlews and their nests remains very difficult. At some traditional sites we have not yet had many signs of the presence of Curlews; have they failed to appear this year, or are we just failing to pick them up? They can be very secretive, and we could be overlooking them.
The male is distinguished by his smaller size and shorter bill, more sharply curved than the bill of the female.
As always, our observations depend on the efforts of a large number of observers, and on the kindness of farmers and land-owners who allow us to visit their land. Many thanks to both.