The Curlew Forum Newsletter is issued four times a year and aims to connect and inform the various groups working on Curlews throughout lowland and southern Britain. Our website, www.curlewcall.org , has previous issues as well as useful information and literature.
Curlew Forum Mission Statement
“Our goal is to work with farmers and land managers to reverse the current decline, and continue monitoring the status of, breeding Curlew across lowland and southern Britain. We will do this by sharing knowledge and experience, raising awareness, offering advice, and securing funding to implement effective conservation measures”.
In this Newsletter
- Dartmoor Summary Outcomes
- Curlew Calling Card
- Curlew at the Hay Festival
- The 2018 breeding season so far
- Curlew activity across Wales, following the Welsh Curlew Conference
- Scottish Workshop on lowland and farmland Curlews on 27 September 2018
- National Gamekeepers’ Organization David Bellamy Educational Trust Award
- Wetlands and Wildfowl Trust winter Curlew appeal
- World Curlew Day 2019
- Appendix: the 2018 breeding season in greater detail, area by area
- Make hay while the sun shines
- Unexpected duties: life in the Curlew Country office
Dartmoor Summit Outcomes
The last newsletter provided some information on the summit convened by HRH Prince Charles on Dartmoor. The headlines are that flexible, targeted agri-environment schemes need to be trialled as soon as possible, which should include provision for predator control if necessary. Awareness raising throughout the general community is vital too. It is proposed that an independent group be formalised that acts as a central hub to bring together Curlew projects throughout the UK (and Ireland?) and to disseminate information, much as the Forum does at the moment for southern/lowland groups. The Curlew Forum was highlighted as a possible template for the new group. We will report on this as developments happen.
Curlew Calling Card
HRH Prince Charles has put his name to a “noisy card” for Curlews. When opened, this card makes the sound of a Curlew and there is a personal plea inside for action to save them. The Curlew card will be publicly available, and the Curlew Forum is named as the point of contact. We hope this will move the agenda on for Curlews and we thank HRH for his support.
Curlew at the Hay Festival
Mary Colwell and the RSPB joined forces for a presentation at the Hay Festival. Mary talked about her new book Curlew Moon, published in April by William Collins (you can buy it through any major book seller such as NHBS https://www.nhbs.com/curlew-moon-book ).
Then Mary, Martin Harper (the Conservation Director for RSPB) and Mark Isherwood (the Curlew species champion in the Welsh Assembly), took questions from the audience. 250 people came for a very enjoyable evening and the discussion was lively and interesting.
The 2018 breeding season so far
As the accounts below show, 2018 seems to have been a spectacularly bad breeding season for Curlews in the river valleys, probably because of the early flooding and later heatwave. Only the New Forest seems to have done well.
Two, possibly three, pairs on Bodmin Moor, one apparently with chicks.
Four territories occupied, but no evidence of breeding; the planned headstarting did not go ahead.
- SOMERSET LEVELS
About 32 pairs located this year, 16 on West Sedgemoor; productivity of chicks poor, probably because of spring flooding and subsequent heatwave.
- SEVERN AND AVON VALES
Nesting season disrupted by two heavy spring floods, in mid-March and again in mid-April; some pairs went ahead with nesting, others may not have bothered. Grass grew very rapidly, making it extremely difficult to find nests, thus frustrating planned use of electric fences and headstarting. Preliminary data suggests 14 pairs tried to nest along Severn, 13 along Avon, productivity nil; some nests lost to early hay-cutting.
Five nests found, three were predated, the two others produced young and one brood of two fledged successfully; several new sites found, and there are definitely more pairs nesting in the county than originally thought. Good relations established with farmers, many of whom are keen to protect their Curlews. Spring agricultural activities (maize and potato planting) and hay cutting caused problems for nesting Curlews. More volunteers needed!
- CURLEW COUNTRY, SHROPSHIRE
The Curlew Country project has concentrated this year on headstarting (see note under headstarting). There was probably no fledging success from natural nests, because of adverse weather conditions.
- UPPER THAMES
37 sites were surveyed as part of the Upper Thames Wader Project by 35 volunteers, and 19 pairs of Curlews were recorded (based on current survey returns). As a first for the project, eight volunteers were trained to find nests, and their efforts, along with the staff team, resulted in 11 nests being located and monitored. Temperature loggers were installed by staff in eight of the nests and, thanks to the Ministry of Defence, cameras were installed at two nests. Our success rate at finding nests is greater than in the last two years, but the fate of the nests is similar, with only three nests hatching. There is, however, evidence of chicks elsewhere in the Upper Thames. For two of the monitored nests which hatched, the hatch was incomplete. The unhatched eggs have been sent, under licence, for analysis.
- SOUTH WILTSHIRE AND SALISBURY PLAIN
Eight pairs confirmed, three nests found, two predated (one possibly sheep), one hatched successfully. Follow-up monitoring has not revealed any pairs with following chicks, aim to survey in mid-July focusing on cut fields when adults and fledged juveniles can sometimes be seen feeding with corvids.
- NORTH WILTSHIRE
At least four breeding pairs reported, no news on fledging success yet.
- NEW FOREST
At least 39 pairs occupied territories and were presumed to be breeding; on two additional territories a lone male was displaying. 26 nests were located, and in 17 of them, temperature loggers were deployed. Eleven nests were predated on eggs, with one pair known to have laid a replacement clutch. At least 16, perhaps 18, nest hatched chicks. Satellite tags were attached to three nesting adults.
26 nests were found from 24 breeding pairs, though field observations suggested up to 35 breeding pairs across the 3,700 hectare site. Productivity low, only two nests fledging chicks. Predation by sheep was observed on nest cameras.
For further details, area by area, see the Appendix.
Wetlands and Wildfowl Trust
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust has successfully released a further cohort of Black-tailed Godwits in the English Fens in 2018. To date we have used a soft release method – fledglings are given a week acclimatising in an aviary at the release location, and are released direct from that onto the site. This year we also trialled moving some of the fledglings to a second release location by vehicle, and undertaking a hard release into the wild. All seemed to go well. A surprising number of our 2017 release cohort returned to the Fens as one-year olds – a year ahead of schedule – and this gives further encouragement that the technique is delivering healthy birds that can survive and migrate appropriately. With this in mind, WWT is considering how it can implement and support headstarting for Curlews in the near future.
Geoff Hilton, 12 July 2018
Curlew Country, Shropshire
This year the Curlew Country project has concentrated on the trialling of headstarting. In 2017 Curlew Country used temporary electric fences to boost egg success. A pilot headstarting project ran alongside this intervention and that of traditional fox control in key areas. The use of temporary electric fencing in 2017 boosted Curlew egg success dramatically. Some eggs were taken to headstart and replaced into nests at pipping stage. A minimum of three chicks fledged from wild nests that were supported by predator control, but elsewhere the loss of chicks from natural nests remained high.
In 2018 the project has focused on incubating eggs and rearing chicks – a short term measure to try to boost the Curlew population whilst discovering the best solution for sustainability. A few clutches of eggs were replaced into natural nests, but chicks were soon lost to predation as they had been in 2017. There was no further funding support for predation control and more chicks have been reared with the aim of releasing them at fledging point. This has been a steep learning curve and with more resources, improvements could have been made to the trial system. We currently have around 20 chicks hatched from eggs taken from over 20 nests. Some are ready to fledge, but the dry weather means that we are concerned about their capacity to forage for worms and we need rain to soften the ground before we are willing to begin a soft release.
Amanda Perkins and Amber Bicheno, 16 July 2018
Regarding headstarting, everything was in place to take, hatch and rear a clutch but the clutch never materialised. The licence, the incubator and the release site were all in place, It was a useful exercise even though it was a scramble in April. All set for 2019!
Jon Avon, 13 July 2018
Update on Curlew activity across Wales
Following the success of the Welsh Curlew Conference, National Resources Wales (NRW) in collaboration with key partners have formed Curlew Cymru. The first meeting of this group took place on 21 June 2018. The meeting was attended by Welsh Government, BTO, RSPB, AONBs, National Gamekeepers Association, Welsh Ornithological Society, Cofnod (the Local Environmental Records Service for North Wales), Wildlife Trusts Wales, BASC, Curlew Country, Countryside Alliance and NRW. Rachel Taylor (BTO) chaired the meeting and is currently drafting agreed actions and key areas where funding will be required. The Group recognise that with financial constraints there is a clear requirement for policy makers, scientists and conservationists across all land management sectors to communicate, cooperate and collaborate to bring the Curlew back from the threat of extinction in Wales.
The Terms of Reference will be ratified in the next 4 weeks, but It was agreed that this group will:
- act as an overarching advisory group to set strategic direction and to act as a catalyst for conservation action, which is intended to be coordinated by regional Curlew recovery groups (North Wales, mid-Wales and South Wales);
- maintain communication and collaboration at National levels between the organisations undertaking research and disseminating findings to wider stakeholders;
- build consensus on the main priorities for Curlew conservation science, engagement and policy in Wales;
- develop funding applications to facilitate regional groups to undertake conservation action and to engage locally with farming and game management communities;
The next meeting will be hosted by one of the Welsh Farming Unions in November 2018 at Builth Wells, and the Chair will rotate through all the key partner organisations.
There is a strong collaboration of organisations committed to aiding the recovery of breeding Curlew in Wales. Due to the complexities of problems faced by breeding Curlew, no single action is expected to produce wide-spread recovery. A strong framework of action is essential to effectively plan Curlew conservation. Development of this framework is a major and exciting challenge; it will need a strong partnership between scientists, conservationists, policy makers and landowners. Curlew Cymru are committed to facilitating this process.
As members of the UK and Ireland Curlew Action Group NRW and BTO will continue to provide specialist input and energy and to act as a conduit from Curlew Cymru.
BTO tracking work in the Welsh Uplands has continued in 2018 and more is planned for 2019. Following on from the pilot Curlew tagging study undertaken by BTO to deploy GPS tags to understand the spatial and temporal distribution of Curlews in an upland landscape, this work was extended during 2018, and in 2019 will support a research student looking at resource use including soil condition, invertebrates and vegetation structure where Curlew spend their time foraging.
NRW is currently collaborating with BTO Science to extend the BTO tracking work into lowland agricultural landscapes. The objectives of this work include a) to consider the birds’ spatial behaviour across lowland landscapes and different farming systems to facilitate agri-environmental policy design; b) to identify important feeding / roosting areas for breeding birds and c) target landowner engagement efforts and inspire collaborative and cooperative management in privately owned landscapes.
RSPB’s Trial Management Project continues in the Welsh Uplands. This project is a four-year large-scale study testing the combined delivery of habitat management (primarily rush cutting) and predator control (Crows and foxes) on nesting success in six paired trial and reference Curlew sites in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
The breeding Curlew population of Mynydd Hiraethog and Ruabon Mountain is being re-surveyed to update our knowledge of this important population hot-spot. This survey is being undertaken by the North Wales Curlew Group and supported by RSPB, using a volunteer-driven approach. The findings from this repeat survey may indicate further loss of range and numbers within this important Curlew breeding area.
Patrick Lindley, on behalf of Curlew Cymru, late June 2018.
Scottish Workshop on lowland and farmland Curlews
The Scottish Curlew workshop will be held on 27 September 2018 near Perth at the Battleby Conference Centre. It is supported by Working for Waders. If you would like to attend, please contact Mike Smart at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you can donate to help this happen, please do so: https://gogetfunding.com/whaups-up-scottish-curlew-conference/
National Gamekeepers’ Organisation David Bellamy Educational Trust Award
Mary was awarded the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation David Bellamy Award 2018, recognising her work in representing the role of gamekeepers in conservation. The award is a large and impressive piece of bog oak. More details at: https://www.gamekeeperstrust.org.uk/news/curlew-conservationist-wins-prestigious-bellamy-award
Wetlands and Wildfowl Trust winter Curlew appeal
WWT is gearing up to get heavily involved in Curlew conservation. We are currently thinking about what role we can most usefully play, and will be drawing conclusions on this in the next couple of months. We have decided that we will be launching our autumn appeal on the subject of Curlews.
Geoff Hilton, WWT, 12 July 2018
World Curlew Day 2019
April is only 9 months away, so please have a think about how to promote Curlews on this day dedicated to Curlews worldwide. It happens to be Easter Sunday! So there must be something to do with eggs and Curlews and hope. Please start planning.
Appendix: the 2018 breeding season in greater detail, area by area
The following items are provisional accounts of the 2018 Curlew breeding situation so far, as reported from several of the main areas of lowland southern Britain. It is hoped to present a fuller account of the 2018 breeding season in the next Newsletter, using the Excel sheet already circulated (and now available on the curlewcall website at http://www.curlewcall.org/curlew-reporting-template/ , so that recording systems are standardised, and comparisons can be made across the board.
The Dartmoor news is brief: all four territories were occupied – the birds arrived later than usual. Two pairs were seen but no evidence of breeding. The first female disappeared soon after arrival and was never located although the pair were seen later in the season. The second female arrived late and is not thought to have bred.
Jon Avon, 17 July 2018
It hasn’t been a great year for breeding Curlews on the Somerset Levels, a wet spring followed by a long period of very dry conditions. Some pairs found suitable nesting locations on their traditional sites on West Sedgemoor, but many didn’t because of waterlogged conditions, with the result that several pairs were located on sites which hadn’t held Curlew in recent years.
A preliminary estimate suggests we have about 32 pairs of Curlew on the Levels this year, slightly up on previous counts, probably because we have recruited a number of excellent volunteers to cover key sites more thoroughly. This includes about 16 pairs on West Sedgemoor, down from the more normal 20 or so.
We have carried out a second year of productivity monitoring on West Sedgemoor. As last year, we located nine Curlew nests on the moor, all of which appear to have failed or been predated, though one chick was found, and another pair making alarm calls was located later. We didn’t attach any radio tags or colour rings this year. Most of the predation seems to have occurred during daylight, with some indication of stoat activity. We are thinking about using nest cameras next year to get a better understanding of what’s going on. For the first time, we tried rope dragging to locate Curlew nests, and this has proved very successful. All our Curlews left the moor by early July, earlier than usual, probably because of the dry conditions. We trialled use of our thermal scope to get a better understanding of what Curlews do after arriving in early spring and prior to pairing up/setting up territory. Our MSc student Annie is writing up this work, which seems to confirm that Curlew do gather communally at this time. The thermal scope hasn’t helped in locating nest sites however.
Off reserves, we are working closely with Natural England staff and landowners to protect nesting pairs from early introduction of stock into nesting fields, and are trying to encourage later cutting of hay meadows in core areas. Our work has been given a welcome boost with the appointment of Damon Bridge as our Somerset Conservation Officer, giving us the capacity to work with our reserves outreach programme, Natural England and landowners to improve ground conditions for breeding waders and of course the reintroduced Eurasian Crane population.
We have also been putting some effort into the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme (the planned replacement for current agri-environmental schemes) advocacy for breeding waders, linking up with other RSPB wetland sites to propose ELM trials to Defra. Watch this space.
We have recently had contact from conservation colleagues at the Cotentin Marshes wetland in Normandy where they are keen to learn more about Curlew conservation and in particular the practicalities of catching adults and chicks.
Richard Archer, 6 July 2018 [Richard and a Curlew chick are on page 44 of the RSPB’s autumn edition of “Nature’s Home”].
Severn and Avon Vales, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire
The small team of volunteer observers carried out repeat surveys of the Severn and Avon Vales in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, like those carried out since 2015, and indeed, with lesser intensity, over a much longer period. In addition, attention was paid to the relict population of breeding Curlews on higher cultivated ground between the two valleys in Worcestershire, more akin to the conditions where the Curlew Country birds nest in Shropshire. Plans had been made to monitor nests more closely this year, with colour ringing of adult birds and chicks, use of electric fences round nests, and a trial of headstarting. These plans came to nothing however, mainly because of the two heavy floods which occurred in March, then again in April, and the heatwave that followed. As a result, the proposed ringing sites were under water early in the season, and once the floods went down, grass grew again very rapidly, making nest finding even more difficult than usual, so the proposed fencing and head starting (supported by a grant from Gloucestershire Naturalists’ Society) did not go ahead; try again next year! Birds were present on the usual nesting fields, acting as though they had nests or were about to make them; but it may well be that many of them never actually laid (for comparison, both Lapwings and Redshanks in the area nested at least a month later than usual). If they did lay, many Curlews lost their eggs early in the season, and only one or two pairs of adults behaved as though they had hatched young in June. A preliminary figure gave a total of 14 pairs along the Severn and 13 pairs along the Avon; figures for those on the higher ground in Worcestershire are not yet available. The fine weather in June and July led to early haymaking by many farmers, and no chicks at all seem to have fledged; two chicks aged about 14 days were ringed, but were not found again.
Bizarrely, the first ever record of Curlew nesting on saltmarsh on the Dumbles at WWT, Slimbridge, occurred. The pair hatched chicks, but they were washed away by an unusually high tide. WWT reserve staff speculated that the birds may have been birds displaced from more normal nesting sites, further up the Severn.
Two interesting observations from John Sanders of birds colour-ringed in previous years: one was a female (White Blue Yellow, which features in Mary Colwell’s book ‘Curlew Moon’) which nests regularly along the Avon, and was back on its Severn estuary moulting and wintering grounds as early as 14 June, so had surely failed; a second bird, a male which has been recorded on the same fields along the Severn every spring and summer since 2011, was back on the estuary by 12 July; since males usually stay to guard young before fledging, this one is also unlikely to have nested successfully.
There is clearly a need to work much more closely with farmers, and to this end a Facilitation Fund project has been initiated under the leadership of the Wildfowl Trust and FWAG (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group) South West; one of the aims will be to seek to provide financial support through agri-environmental schemes for farmers who encourage Curlews. Many farmers do already leave areas of hay uncut for the benefit of the birds, and we need to develop a more extensive early warning system with farmers whose hay fields hold nesting Curlews.
Mike Smart, July 2018
Compared to last year our knowledge of Curlew behaviour and nest finding ability has improved significantly. We went through a massive learning curve as the season progressed but there is still so much to learn about this enigmatic bird. We were consoled by the knowledge that nobody else seems to know all the answers either!
On the positive(ish) side:
- We actually found three nests. Sadly all three were predated, with evidence pointing to fox as the culprit in all cases (see more about this below).
- We had at least another two sites which raised young. One produced at least two chicks (we have the pictures to prove it!) but these do not appear to have survived to fledging. The other was more successful however and the two chicks have now fledged – just too soon for us to colour ring them but it was great to see them flying round strongly while we watched helplessly from the ground, clutching the ringing gear!
- Our early searches and slightly increased workforce have identified at least six new probable (in one case definite) breeding sites. In addition we now realise that at some sites, where last year we assumed there was only one pair of birds, there are in reality two or even three pairs in reasonably close proximity. This would explain the somewhat scattered distribution of our previous and historical records from certain parts of the county. There are undoubtedly more Curlews breeding (or attempting to) in the county than our previous records suggested.
- We have established good working relationships with several landowners who are all very keen to protect “their” Curlew.
- We erected signs asking walkers to keep dogs on leads at all entrances to Sink Green Farm, Hampton Meadows and Upper Lugg Meadows. Overall compliance with these is unknown but the latter site is a major attraction for the dog walking fraternity and this is presumed to be a major reason why Curlews do not nest there.
On the negative side:
- Foolishly (with the benefit of hindsight) we declined the offer of a loan of electric fencing from Gloucestershire to protect our first nest find. This was in a crop of rye grass being grown for seed, so we were very pleased to think that this would entail a very late cut and therefore not affect young Curlew. Although the landowner and tenant were very cooperative we were worried that the necessary crop cutting round the nest would be an imposition so decided to wait and see if predation was a problem and, if so, what it was. Well, at least we know now but it also raises the unsettling possibility that our visit aided the predator to locate the nest.
- Agricultural activity in late April (for potatoes or maize) caused major disruption to the Curlews on at least 2 sites. In both cases there seemed to be no suitable alternative habitat nearby for Curlew which up until then had been looking settled on territory; from subsequent surveys we presumed the birds did not find any and therefore did not breed.
- Hay cutting is a problem (but silage would have been worse!). Farmers are cooperative but if they want a decent crop they can only delay cutting for so long. At the beginning of the season our understanding was that young Curlews are vulnerable to the cutters right up until fledging as they will crouch in the grass rather than run. Ours and others’ observations this year now suggest that this is not necessarily true and larger young can run to safety. I am now reasonably hopeful that mowing at the end of June should be safe for nests which start at the normal time (end of April). Even after the prolonged flooding we experienced this year this seems to have been the case again.
- Even the Lugg Meadows (an SSSI and ancient Lammas meadow) had a problem with hay cutting. Although the majority of the land is owned either by Plantlife or Herefordshire Wildlife Trust and is subject to an earliest cutting date of 1 July, a large section is still in private ownership with an owner who does not appear to be aware of his responsibility towards the SSSI – even though Curlew are not listed as one of the reasons for SSSI notification he still has a duty not to cut until after ground-nesting birds have fledged their young. His action this year of cutting in mid-June caught us completely off guard and we believe this resulted in the demise of young Curlew from a previously undiscovered nest site (possibly a re-lay from one of the predated nests). We are now working with Natural England, Plantlife, HWT and (hopefully) the landowner to try to establish a working relationship with him.
- We have too little man/woman power and too little time to do a complete job. Even with our improved understanding of Curlew behaviour it is now apparent that you need many hours of field work just to locate nest positions and yet more to establish nest outcome. At the newly-identified or previously under-watched sites, nest locating is made harder still because we have little, if any history to go on. Just because you can hear calling birds doesn’t mean you can locate their nest site or even them!
Thoughts for next year:
- Where appropriate and achievable we will use electric fencing to deter nest predation.
- It would be really useful to know the identity of what we presume are failed breeders which start appearing in small gatherings and roosts from early June onwards. I have talked with ringers about capture methods for colour ringing but catching the young birds seems the best (if rather long-term) option. We are working with Gloucestershire on this, although our only attempt so far this year unfortunately came too late (see above). We will persevere.
- We may consider rope dragging for nest searching in certain areas.
- If resources permit, we will investigate some of the potential (or known) sites to the north of Hereford, which means:
- Recruit more helpers!!
Chris Robinson, June 2018
Things in North Wiltshire have been quiet with few reports. Two pairs had been seen regularly at Blakehill, a Wiltshire Wildlife Trust site. But since the next-door neighbour cut their field, and a pair were seen overnight and through the next day in the cut field, no signs have been seen or heard. A field walk in advance of a possible hay cut disturbed a number of Skylarks but no Curlews which is very disappointing (the hay cut had been delayed for the Skylarks).
Reports come in from the Cotswold Water Park area (thanks to Kim Milsom and the CWP Trust). Most seem to be of small groups of feeding Curlews. They can be very vocal, and I have sat out fishing, listening to them call through the night. There are some possible breeding sites and we await information from this year.
The site on private land near Purton reported possibly two pairs early in the season. A further site near the Brinkworth Brook, discovered last year, also has seen at least pair observed.
Neil Pullen, 7 July 2018
Curlew Country, Shropshire
We are not aware of aware of any natural nest success this year. Second nests were difficult to find in the long grass and without predation control we knew that many or all of the chicks would be lost. One brood we were watching in a natural nest was mown when it strayed into a field that it had not used in either the 2017 or 2018 season, so we were not in touch with the farmers. We were told about another brood just too late to save it. The cold wet early weather and the recent hot dry weather have both made this an exceptionally difficult year for Curlew in relation to agricultural operations. From early in June we were seeing large groups of birds, presumably failed nesters, gathering to migrate out of the area.
Several changes on the ground have been noted. Birds have moved territories, changed partners and nested in entirely new areas. We suspect that this may be as a result of the severe early weather which will have hit them on their migratory passage or even when they arrived back within the Curlew Country area.
Amanda Perkins and Amber Bicheno, Curlew Country, 16 July 2018
[NB: the Curlew Country project covers parts of Shropshire and the Welsh Marches. More details on the Curlew Country website at www.curlewcountry.org which boasts a fascinating webcam. Other observers are monitoring other parts of Shropshire].
In numbers, eight confirmed pairs would represent an increase on the 2016 and 2017 seasons; most likely however, this reflects the fact that we are getting to know better the areas used by Curlews on the Plain, rather than their numbers increasing. This is further borne out by the fact that I have neither seen, or had any report of either following chicks or fledged juveniles.
After the success of finding five nests in 2017, we were buoyant and hoping for another similar year when our Curlews had all returned by mid-April. This year was hard going though, only three nests found by the end of May, two subsequently failed before hatching but the other did hatch successfully – both eggshell remains and temperature logger trace showing the evidence. Hopes of chicks were quickly dashed as a group of six adults were seen nearby on a couple of occasions soon afterwards. Two other pairs were evidently disrupted during the settlement/laying period by army operations. The drought then set in, the thin, well-drained calcareous soils of Salisbury Plain quickly drying out, cracks appearing, and the grass scorched, and some of the largest fires I have seen in 20 years here breaking out across the impact area. And the Curlews left.
What we do have from this year though is a much more informed understanding of the areas Curlews are using on the Plain. We will build on this in end-of-season discussions with Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO), the environmental advisory body working with the Army on the training estate towards managing a better environment for Curlews alongside their Stone Curlew neighbours. Thanks are due at this stage to DIO, who, this year, have supported the Curlew work on the Plain through the purchase of temperature loggers. We look forward to next year!
Phil Sheldrake, 17 July 2018
Spring 2018 saw the New Forest breeding Curlew survey enter its third year, with roughly the same observers as in previous years.
The aim of this project has been to improve understanding of the factors underlying the population crash for Curlew nationally. As the New Forest holds the largest breeding population of Curlew in southern England, understanding the issues and working with the key landowners and stakeholders would be crucial, if we are to have any chance of mitigating against these declines.
The New Forest National Park is beset by a number of modern day pressures and all our birdlife is having to cope with unrestricted access and recreation, increased traffic, large numbers of domestic stock and high populations of predators such as foxes, badgers, corvids, Ravens, Buzzards, Goshawks and Peregrines. Some of these things are within all our remits to change or influence easily, and others are much more complex.
Productivity of breeding birds, and rearing young to adulthood are crucial to maintaining stable populations, but where a species is long-lived, then any decline may be harder to detect as it will be gradual and less pronounced, because it occurs over a greater period. With this in mind, our initial aim has been to see if we can identify the causes of failure that might limit success and ultimately recruitment. However there is an awful lot we don’t know about our Forest Curlews, so some exciting projects are possible.
We have suspected for some time that poor productivity from breeding attempts could be a key factor driving declines, so this has been the focus for the first years. Nest finding and deploying small temperature loggers into the base of the nest has provided information on when, and at what time of day predation of eggs is occurring. It also has the potential to show whether human disturbance is causing the birds to leave the nest for longer or more frequently than they otherwise would.
But as with all things this is only part of the story. We have no idea where our Curlews spend the winter, nor how they utilise land around the Forest for feeding.
Discussions had taken place regarding the feasibility of catching and satellite tagging adult Curlews, so we seconded the expertise of two of the County’s authorities on the subject: Pete Potts, who has extensive experience with catching and ringing waders both here and abroad; and Andrew Hoodless from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust who is licensed to fit satellite tags through his long-term project researching Woodcock.
Sorting these things takes time and after the appropriate permissions, licences, HRA’s and funding were all in place, it was not until this year that we were able to look at this seriously. Any work of this kind carries some risk, and this has to be weighed against the information we might gain.
Following the late spring it was not until mid- March that the first reports of Curlew were received but it was not until late April that observations came in thick and fast. It was soon evident that the key territories established over the previous two springs all seemed to be occupied again and some extra sightings had our hopes up that we might have a few more birds present. As sites were confirmed I set about nest finding in earnest, aided by information gleaned from observers and my own fieldwork.
I found the first nest on 28 April and contacted Russell Wynn to activate some of the nest data loggers ready for deployment. Having collected a batch of loggers on the evening of the 30 April, by which time I had found another three nests, I started deploying loggers on 1 May. The next couple of weeks saw the number of nests found climb steadily and it wasn’t long before all 17 temperature loggers that we had were deployed. Details of the fascinating results provided by these loggers will be presented in the next Newsletter.
With a good sample of nests now to choose from, we could look at the practicalities of taking the project forward and hopefully putting GPS tags on New Forest Curlews, so it was with some minor reservations that I accompanied Pete and Andrew into the Forest on 25 May to attempt catching an adult Curlew at some of our nests.
After a couple of hours we had successfully fitted tags to two birds at different sites and I was reassuringly pleased to watch an incubating female return to her nest and continue incubation, barely ten minutes from release after being tagged and colour ringed. These tagged birds will hopefully provide data on links between local estuaries and the Forest, which may one day add weight to arguments for the refusal of yet more coastal development: details of results in a future number of this Newsletter.
2018 Preliminary results
At least 39 pairs were occupying territories and presumed breeding, plus an additional two territories where only a male was seen displaying. 26 nests were located, (including one relay), 22 clutches of four eggs and four clutches of three eggs. The first nest of the season was found on 28 April with 19 nests being found by 13 May. Temperature loggers were deployed in 17 nests by Andy Page.
Two nests were not approached or inspected as a measure of control to see whether nest visits might affect predation. Both were subsequently predated. There were 11 sites where no nests were found due to time constraints at the peak time, including two sites where birds were thought to have vacated by late May.
11 pairs were predated on eggs, with one known to have laid a replacement clutch of three by 8 June. Unfortunately an adult was predated at a nest in the north of the Forest between 4 and 12 May probably by fox. 13 nests are known to have hatched chicks with a further two possible, plus chicks were present at three sites where the nest was not found.
Two adult males and one adult female from three different sites /pairs were caught in heart traps on the nest by Pete Potts who has considerable experience in this, and were subsequently satellite tagged by Andrew Hoodless from the GWCT who has the necessary licensing.
Andy Page, for and on behalf of the New Forest Curlew Group and Wild New Forest, July 2018
Breckland, East Anglia
For the second year, the Eurasian Curlew population across 3,700 hectares of semi-natural grass-heath in the Brecks was monitored. A total of 26 Curlew nests were found, from 24 breeding pairs, but field observations indicated up to 35 breeding pairs across the site. Very low productivity was observed, with 18 nests failing at the egg stage, six nests failing at chick stage, and two nests fledging four chicks; giving a productivity of 0.17 chicks per pair.
Nesting attempts were monitored with the use of temperature loggers and nest cameras to understand the nature of nest predation. The cameras recorded six predation events: four by foxes, one by a Carrion Crow (following a potential abandonment of the nest) and, most interestingly, one by a sheep (see photos below). The camera footage proved very eye-opening and informative; two of the fox predation events took place during daylight, Curlews were observed to successfully fend off corvids from nests, whilst sheep were found to cause persistent disturbance to five out of seven nests that were monitored by cameras in grazed areas. This year, only a quarter of predation events happened at night but considering the insight from camera footage, foxes are likely the main cause of the low nesting survival at this site, though data are still being analysed.
The study site is home to a landscape-scale replicated ground-disturbance experiment, comprised of 117 disturbed plots, which differ in establishment technique, size and cultivation frequency. This year 38% of nests were located on plots, which only occupy approximately 8% of the total suitable breeding habitat. As part of a MSc dissertation project at the University of East Anglia, data from 2017 and 2018 breeding seasons will be explored further to understand habitat utilisation for breeding and foraging across this grassland-plot mosaic. Results of these analyses will be reported in the next Newsletter and in future papers.
Figure 2. Image from a nest camera of a sheep holding the bill of an incubating Curlew in its mouth. This image was taken about 20 minutes before the nest was partially predated by the sheep. Photo: Natalia Zielonka
Make hay while the sun shines
‘Whan the sunne shineth make hay. Which is to say. Take time when time cometh, lest time steale away’. English proverb first recorded in 1546.
Twitter and Facebook have been increasingly reporting instances of silage and hay cutting during the past few weeks and views have been expressed on the possible consequences for Curlew. The hot sunny weather has enabled farmers to take an early crop as the grass has grown and ripened well and must be cut, turned to make sure it is dry and harvested in fair weather. The urgency of gathering in a good crop is not just about the weather. Grass to be fed to sheep and cattle during the long winter months will ideally provide the optimum nutrient requirement which happens at a certain growth stage and of course this in turn is weather dependent and at a different date each year. Farmers, pushed by the public demand for ever cheaper food, aim to cut and preserve a crop which will encourage the best growth rate and muscle to fat ratio in their livestock. This year the long and harsh winter weather caused many farmers to run out of fodder crops and they were forced to buy in replacements at high prices which has led to inevitable loss of income. Grass crops cut early in the season enable the grass to grow sufficiently for another one or more later crops to be mown and stored for winter feed. The dry weather will limit grass growth, so all needs to be done to maximise the benefits from an agricultural crop. Farmers are reporting that their grass crops are beginning to wither from lack of moisture. Last year crop condition was lost when crops were not cut in the fine weather in July. Following the period of rain that followed, I know of farmers that lost the crops altogether.
Traditional hay meadows would have contained species that thrived on a comparatively nutrient-impoverished soil. Meadow flowers and grasses would not have reached cutting stage until much later in the year – late July or August and only one crop would have been harvested. The flower and grass species in a traditional meadow would have supported a similar wide range of invertebrates upon which ground-nesting bird chicks rely. Some rye grass crops can be taken as early as April for silage in an exceptional year.
It is Curlew Country’s experience that farmers will not harm a Curlew nest if they know where it is. Farmers are very keen on ground-nesting birds and want to see them return to a viable population. We do however have two farmers in our trial area who do not support the project (one says he will call the police if we step onto his land). This year we spied a nest on land that this farmer takes a crop from and told the landowner, but were upset to see the field rolled, with the inevitable consequence of nest destruction, the following day. North Wales and the Severn and Avon Vales have similarly reported similar incidents in a few cases.
The social media cry has hastened to call for a ban on cutting crops before certain dates and asking why more Curlew nests cannot be saved from such agricultural activity. Under agri-environment schemes the crop could not be cut for a few more weeks until mid-July, but not everyone is in an agri-environment scheme. If the schemes had worked and were simple to construct for nesting waders, and Curlew in particular, we would have plenty in the lowlands still. The local agri-environment scheme cutting date would not save most local Curlews. Last year farmers wanting to cut grass in early July, when it was ready, lost money by delaying and then not having fine weather for harvesting again until late August.
In the past it has been suggested that a mowing protocol may help. Mowing was advised from the inside of the field out to drive out Curlew chicks into a neighbouring field or alternatively in strips across the field starting at the furthest point from where the Curlews were thought to be. Our experience is that Curlew chicks do not move out of a field or away from a threat, such as a forage harvester or mowing machine. They hunker down and try to hide in the sward.
In the last few days the project ornithologist has been to rescue some Curlew chicks from mowing which was to take place on a given date. The adults nested on a field belonging to one farmer who gave permission for a protective electric fence to be erected. The four chicks hatched from the eggs and predation control was active in the area. The family of Curlew moved to an adjacent field in which adults had nested last year. The farmer who owns this field is exceptionally keen on protecting the Curlew. Last year, the project had sufficient funding to compensate farmers who lost income through supporting Curlew. This farmer lost several thousand pounds on delaying the cutting of his crop, refusing to take the offer of compensation for loss of value by delaying cutting. Even this farmer came to a point in August where he could not delay cutting further or he would face complete loss of crop. At this point the remaining chicks were about to fully fledge, flying well but had not set off on their migratory journey. This year the crop was sold, but the farmer did not do this until he knew that the Curlews were not nesting on his land again. He was disappointed that they had not returned and had been willing to sustain a similar loss to help them. He was delighted when they returned to forage and kept a close eye on them as far as he could. News of the proposed cutting date came through and preparations were made to visit to save the chicks. Several members of the Curlew Country team who had been keeping an eye on the Curlew family witnessed or radio-tracked them to the field during the week before the cutting date. Farmers around the field with the Curlew family in it began cutting their grass. Student Billy Clapham who has been filming with the project this year has got some great footage of the Curlew family fending off the many avian predators such as Buzzards, Red Kites and crows that are attracted to a grass cutting site. A mown field exposes a food source at the base of the mown grass, but also attracts high numbers of predators to vulnerable species close by. Billy commented that it was harrowing to watch the adult Curlews having to work so hard over a long period of time, to protect their chicks from hunting Red Kites.
Over the weekend more grass was unexpectedly cut by another neighbour, but the Curlew family had not been seen or radio-tracked to that small field, nor did the Curlew family visit it last year to our knowledge. The ornithologist arrived to radio track the chicks and keep them safe during the cutting period. We may have had to have done the same when the crop was turned and baled all on separate days and possibly with limited notice as farmers cannot always predict what the weather will do. Our minor problem was not however prolonged and turned into a much larger one as the chicks had disappeared and the behaviour of the adults suggested that they may have been mown up in the adjacent field.
This Curlew family ranged over an area of at least 40 acres (16 hectares). They were more observed by people wishing to protect them (mainly the farmer) than any other birds in the project this year. Last year one of the Curlew Country chicks that fledged had foraged with its family over an area of about 60 acres (24 hectares). Saving that Curlew family cost £3,000 when they were located to a fraction of that area and the mowing was stopped.
An agri-environment scheme compensating farmers for loss of income in this case would involve three farmers and there would have been no predicting which three farmers that might be before the nesting season. It will be challenging but not impossible to provide a basic level of support at landscape scale for delivering wildlife benefits such as supporting breeding Curlew and to reward people for results. We must not jump to conclusions and tick the wrong box. The solution is detailed and complicated: whilst we take positive action to save Curlew through boosting numbers now, we must also do the best we can to get things right for a sustainable future for them. Survival of lowland Curlew is dependent upon farmers and land managers. Fortunately, the majority of them are as keen as anyone else on a workable plan for wader recovery. We need to stop alienating farmers and blaming them for meeting our insatiable demand for cheap food. How would we feel if we arrived at work and were told that the rather rare and precious creature that needed to be saved had taken up residence locally and would mean a cut in our salary and a complete re-design of our annual workplan and that this might possibly be the case for the foreseeable future? Positive partnerships between land managers, conservationists and communities and a pragmatic approach will be the methodology for achieving the common goal of keeping a viable Curlew population in lowland UK.
Amanda Perkins, Curlew Country, Project Manager, 2 July 2018
Unexpected Duties: Life in the Curlew Country office
My name is Amber Bicheno, and I am currently employed to assist with the Curlew Country project. This is the second year in which I have done this, following on from volunteering work with the Stiperstones and Corndon Hill Landscape Partnership Scheme. In this blog I am going to tell you a little about what I do, and some of the more unusual occurrences in my days at the office.
From the outset this season, it was obvious that things would be different to previous years. Headstarting was now our main focus, after a successful trial in 2017 resulted in 5 chicks being reared and released. The time had come to scale this up, and really try to boost Curlew numbers to increase their chances.
My role in this is very broad, with administration, publicity and website management being my main focus, but I also assist the project manager with anything she needs. The work I do is highly variable, and often results in strange tasks that could more accurately be described as quests. The ups and downs have been many, and I am constantly learning and adapting to suit the project’s needs.
Early in the season I spent time out nest finding, which consists of many hours glued to a pair of binoculars or a telescope, watching for birds acting suspiciously. It can take a little bit of practice to get your eye in on what exactly makes a Curlew look suspicious, but once you’ve seen it, it’s easier to spot again. A bird that is bombing crows or other birds obviously has something to protect, but less obvious behaviours could also indicate a nest is present, such as zig zagging cautiously through a field. I’ve also taken out volunteers, trying to pass on some of my meagre wisdom and work as a team to find nests, to varying degrees of success.
This is always a tense time for the team, as the race is on to locate nests before the predators get to them. The birds do nothing to help, putting on their very best distracting and disguising techniques. In many cases we would find an incomplete clutch of eggs, which raised the question of whether to take the egg and adding it to the incubator or to leave it until the rest are laid, and risk losing them all. To counter this dilemma, dummy eggs were introduced, which could be placed into the incomplete nests to encourage the birds to continue laying.
Relating to this came one of my stranger quests; camouflaging eggs to look like Curlew eggs. There was some debate as to the best way to achieve this, would chicken eggs be big enough? Maybe not, duck eggs would be closer, painting needed to be dark greens and light browns, would a stencil work? Painting each individually would surely take too long, and we didn’t have the time to spare.
In the end, I went to the market to buy two dozen duck eggs, followed by spray paint in olive green, and a sponge. I then set to work, carefully washing all the eggs, drying, spraying a base coat and sponging on a variety of assorted colours. I wouldn’t call them a work of art, but they would hopefully do a good enough job to convince a Curlew to keep laying.
Mid way through the season and all my attention was focused on the incubation of the eggs. This was a learning curve for everyone and involved some frantic reading of the instruction manuals and literature to set them up correctly. The water in the incubators must be kept topped up, to ensure the humidity inside is correct. And two days before hatching, turning is stopped and humidity increased even further to aid with the process.
The eggs can take up to three days to hatch, starting with just cracking or crazing on the outside of the shell. This made for some very tense and stressful watching and waiting, trying hard to resist the urge to help. Helping the chick out of the egg could speed the process along too quickly, resulting in the chick emerging without fully reabsorbing the yolk sac. Care is taken by all to keep the times the incubator is opened to a minimum, each time it’s opened, the humidity drops and could make it more difficult for the remaining eggs to hatch.
When first removed from the incubator and placed under a brooder, the chicks’ beaks had to be dipped in the shallow dish of water available for them, enabling them to find it again. Another issue we had to look out for at this early stage was the chicks getting splayed legs. It is important that they could keep their legs underneath their bodies, but occasionally a chick would start to struggle, with legs angling out uncomfortably. If this occurred we quickly addressed the issue by splinting the legs, using a small elastic band above the knees, no easy task to get on over those very big feet! Once on, a close eye had to be kept on the band, to ensure it did not damage the legs and so that it could be removed once they have recovered.
For the first 48 hours the young chicks do not need to eat, still having enough nutrition from the yolk sac. After this it was a case of encouraging them to eat mini mealworms and chick crumbs, imitating pecking using a pencil until they get the general idea and give it a go themselves. Chick crumbs are generally fed to young chicks of poultry, being small enough and containing the nutrition they require. The mini mealworms are smaller and more manageable for very young chicks than regular mealworms and get them used to moving prey.
The chicks grow fast, and the numbers out from their eggs quickly increased. One weekend whilst I was on duty I experienced my first loss. I noticed in the final Friday evening check that one chick was calling and staying hidden under the brooder constantly. I removed the chick to a box separate from the others, giving it food and water, but it quickly became apparent that the chick could not properly stand or walk. Uncertain of what to do, and with nobody available to help that weekend I kept the chick separate, keeping a close eye on it for the next couple of days. It started to eat and drink a little, which raised my hopes slightly for the fate of this small creature, but sadly by Sunday afternoon it died. We cannot expect every chick to make it, although I must admit that the loss of this one wrenched at my heart.
For the rest of the chicks all seemed well. As the days went by, their appetites increased dramatically, moving onto normal mealworms, giant mealworms, earthworms and morio worms. It is important that the chicks are fed live food, however this presented challenges in itself. The mealworms must be fed and kept cold to prevent them turning into beetles too quickly. The earthworms also have to be kept cool and in earth, so they do not dry out. Morio worms are much bigger versions of mealworms, and much feistier! They will bite if given the chance and proved a bit more of a challenge for our young Curlew.
The copious quantities of live food required by the chicks caused some issues when a national mealworm shortage became apparent, after two major suppliers had incidents damaging huge quantities of stock. Cue the team and I frantically visiting every pet store and food supplier to retrieve more mealworms wherever and whenever possible. I have even spent some time bug hunting in the meadow to boost the number of prey insects.
When the chicks were moved to their outdoor pen, the work did not stop. For welfare to be ensured, regular checks and visits had to made, whilst simultaneously carrying this out as quickly as possible, to avoid any imprinting and humanisation of the young birds. The food and water trays are cleaned, disinfected and refilled regularly, to minimise the chances of parasites or diseases. Precautions have been taken to ensure that predators cannot enter the pen, including a double electric fence, a fine gauge wire mesh around the base to stop burrowing and a tough netting over the top. The chick’s safety and wellbeing is of the highest priority.
All of these combined efforts, strange tasks and odd quests are worth it however, for in the next few weeks the chicks will be released into the wild. It is my hope that all the sleepless nights and visions of mealworms at every corner will be rewarded when that day comes, knowing that we have made every effort to make a difference.
Headstarting chicks is not a long-term solution to Curlew decline, something that all of the Curlew Country team are well aware, but it will buy us time. Time in which wider solutions can be found, and where we can work with farmers to make a real difference.
Amber Bicheno, Curlew Country team, July 2018