Preliminary report on 2016 breeding Curlew survey

Curlews are a familiar breeding bird along the Severn Vale from Gloucester up to Worcester, and along the Avon from Tewkesbury to Evesham. They nest in hay meadows, and their bubbling call is one of the sounds of summer.   Upwards of 50 pairs may nest in this area, making it one of the most important areas for the species in the South-West.  So in spring and summer 2016 a small group of observers has tried to assess the number of breeding pairs, to identify the fields where they nest (they are known to be strongly faithful to breeding fields), and to make an estimate of productivity – given that many chicks are known to fall a prey to predators (notably foxes, and probably crows and gulls as well), and that some fall victim to early mowing, particularly of silage.

The preliminary results are as follows (a more detailed report will appear in due course):

  • About 30 pairs that attempted to nest were found in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire.
  • This is probably an underestimate, as some known sites were not covered, and nesting birds were often difficult to find in long grass, remaining particularly discreet when they had young chicks in June.
  • Nesting began late, as many riverside meadows remained flooded until well into April, rather later than in most recent years.
  • Several pairs, presumed (from their behaviour) to be nesting, were located in April and May; very few nests were found, since they are well hidden in the long grass, and it is important not to disturb grass around the nest, thus making them more liable to predation.
  • Some nesting pairs appeared to lose their eggs or young early in the season; the adult birds tended to stay on for a short time at the breeding site, and then to disappear, no doubt departing to the moulting and wintering areas around the coast, including the Gloucestershire sector of the Severn estuary.
  • When the chicks hatch, the females leave the breeding site fairly early (before the young are full-grown), leaving just the male to care for the  chicks in late June and July when the young are learning to fly.
  • At least six adult males with just-flying chicks were found during July, and at least one more was suspected to have young because of the agitated behaviour of the male.
  • When the chicks are able to fly, the male departs for the coast, leaving the chicks to fend for themselves.  For a few days chicks may be seen on their own near the breeding place; at one site six flying juveniles were seen together in early August, suggesting that the total number of successful broods may have been above seven.
  • There are a few records of young birds appearing at non-breeding sites along the Severn, presumably young birds on their way to the coast.
  • It was notable that the majority of farmers and landowners, on whose land Curlews were nesting, were very favourably disposed towards the birds: they were very familiar with the species, recognised them as returning to the same field or fields year after year; in many cases they made special arrangements to avoid disturbing the nesting birds, in some cases suspending hay making if young birds were present.
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