Latest news on the breeding Curlew survey

A real movement to study and protect breeding Curlews in lowland Britain seems to be developing.  Apart from our efforts in the Severn and Avon Vales in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, Phil Sheldrake is busy on Salisbury Plain and has contacts with Curlew observers in the New Forest; surveys are being carried out in two areas of the Upper Thames Catchment (through RSPB Otmoor and Jenny Phelps of  Gloucestershire FWAG) and there’s a demonstration on one of the farms near Faringdon tomorrow); Phil and I are planning to visit the Somerset Levels next week, to see how their Curlews are doing.  Furthermore Mary Colwell is now in the middle of her 500 mile walk from Ireland to East Anglia to highlight the plight of the Curlew: she came to the Severn and Avon Vales in early April before beginning her walk; you can see notes on her visit to our area, plus details of how her walk is going, on her website  The latest edition of RSPB’s magazine “Nature’s Home” carries a note about the lowland Curlew surveys on page 39.

We hope at the end of the breeding season to arrange some kind of get together for all those interested in Curlews and who have taken part in the surveys.

Now for some updates on the situation in the Severn and Avon Vales in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire:

  • In the Gloucestershire section we had April flooding for the first time since 2012 (thanks to Storm Katie coinciding with high elver tides); this meant that many of the traditional breeding sites were under water until mid-April, and still remain very wet; so 2016 is definitely a late season.
  • Whether because of the wet conditions, or because of the continuing decline in Curlew numbers, I have the impression that there are fewer Curlews than usual in the traditional breeding haunts this year: that’s only an impression, and I hope I shall be proved wrong as the season advances.  Several people have sent NIL returns for sites usually occupied.
  • Many pairs at traditional sites have spent the month of April holding territory, just standing round (often in pairs), showing other pairs that this field is occupied.  I haven’t seen much chasing or courtship behaviour: this is in fact quite hard to see, because they stand still, apparently doing nothing, for a very long time, and you need patience, waiting at the edge of a field behind your telescope to see them actually indulging in courtship chases.
  • The grass has now grown belly high to a Curlew, and I think they are just now in the process of laying.  Typically, a pair will stand feeding in a field, then one (the female which can be distinguished by its longer de-curved bill and larger size) walks away, often with a particular gait, looking alert and keeping close to the ground to avoid attention, and disappears out of sight.  Meanwhile the male stands round, on guard.  Phil Sheldrake tells me that he has observed this kind of behaviour on Salisbury Plain, and has pinpointed several nests in this way.
  • I have been to the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust reserve at Coombe Hill a couple of time in the evenings, to look at numbers coming to roost.  Numbers were small because of the flooding in early April, but the last two visits have produced only five and four roosting birds, another reason for thinking numbers are low.
  • Two of the birds colour ringed in autumn from 2010 to 2013 on the Severn estuary have been re-sighted on their traditional fields, one at the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust reserve at Ashleworth, one near Twyning.  No one has as yet found the colour-ringed bird seen in previous breeding seasons in the Queenshill Rough/ Ripple Lake area.
  • I have been to see John Belsey at the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust reserve of Upton Warren, where there is a tradition  of Curlew roosts; interestingly, these turn out to be mainly in winter, with numbers dropping off in summer; so the situation there is clearly different, with wintering rather than breeding birds coming to roost.
  • Carrion Crow and Magpie control is practised by many farmers in the area around Haw Bridge.  They are convinced that excessive numbers of predators is one of the reasons for the decline of breeding Curlews (which is  what the British Birds article in November 2015 said).  Foxes at Coombe Hill cause panic among the waders present.
  • It is hoped that mowing on the Severn Ham at Tewkesbury will be flexible (like last year), to allow any chicks produced there to fledge before the hay is cut.

I’d welcome any comments on the above remarks, and – even more so! – any additional observations that any of you may have made.

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