Curlews at the International Wader Study Group, 2019

IWSG 2019 Conference at Morecambe

Mike Smart

This year’s Annual Conference of the International Wader Study Group (IWSG) was held in UK at one of the UK’s major estuarine sites, Morecambe Bay in northwest England (2017 in the Czech Republic, 2018 in The Netherlands). Tributes were paid to Hermann Hötker, former Chairman of IWSG, whose  death was mentioned in the recent Curlew Forum Newsletter 7. Next year’s Conference will be held in October 2020 on the island of Sylt in the German sector of the Wadden Sea. Three of the four members of the Curlew Forum Steering Committee were present, together with many other Curlew specialists associated with the Forum. More information on IWSG can be found on the Group’s website ; the present note is very much a personal reflection of the many presentations or conversations about Curlews in Morecambe.

As usual, the general atmosphere of the Conference was informal and the participants were active field workers and researchers on waders. Presentations came from all over western Europe, with some presentations on American shorebirds, some from Asia (notably Dubai and Bangladesh) and a very welcome emphasis on the Bijagos Archipelago in Guinea-Bissau, one of the major (yet until recently little-known) wintering grounds for Palearctic waders. Posters on specific wader issues were on show, and the Conference was followed by an all-day workshop on the vital issue of “Predator management for the conservation of breeding waders”. As a very general personal impression, it was noteworthy that almost all speakers referred to declines in population numbers of the wader they were studying, almost the only exceptions being Oystercatcher (now nesting in the centre of Dutch cities), Spoon-billed Sandpiper (which has benefitted from intensive conservation efforts including head-starting), and the Icelandic subspecies of Black-tailed Godwit.

The bullet points below summarise some of the formal presentations on Curlew (many of them by authors whose work will be familiar to readers of the Curlew Forum Newsletter) and also some of the informal discussions about that species:

  • Lucas Mander made a presentation under the title “At home in a small range: Eurasian Curlew movement in the Humber Estuary, UK”, in which he showed the results of satellite tagging of Curlews to investigate their adoption of newly restored saltmarsh habitat: they didn’t go far – very site-faithful, like their relatives on other estuaries!
  • Harry Ewing spoke on “Gathering evidence to inform local and landscape-scale management of a threatened wader population”, making all other Curlew workers jealous of his facility in finding Curlew nests, over 60 in Breckland in eastern England.
  • Rachel Taylor made a presentation on “A cautious approach to field methods for estimating Curlew breeding density”. Rachel gave a glimpse of her latest studies, showing that the number of Curlews actually present in a breeding site may be larger or smaller than at first appears from simple counts in the field; we are not good at counting Curlews because we have failed to understand how far they travel while nesting – both to feed and roost.
  • Peter Potts spoke on “The Rise and Fall in the Solent and New Forest, with a focus on recent GPS studies” and illustrated the movements revealed by GPS tags of Curlews between local breeding and wintering grounds, as well as the decline in numbers in the area. This is very important information as a roosting/feeding site on the Solent is earmarked for development and these data might help conserve the site.
  • Katharine Bowgen presented a poster on “Combining existing data sets to project extinction in a declining population: the example of the Curlew in Wales”. Data sets from different surveys of the sharply declining population of breeding Curlews in Wales are combined to define policy for conserving Welsh Curlews.
  • Robert Pell presented a poster on “insights into sex-specific migratory strategies amongst Eurasian Curlew using the Wash estuary”. Some 70% of the birds caught wintered on The Wash, but longer-billed passage females were more likely to move on to winter elsewhere.
  • Following the recent suspension of the French hunting season for Curlew in the 2019/20 season (see Newsletter 7 for details), there was much discussion with participants from the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (the French BirdLife partner). The decision to suspend the hunting season had called for an Adaptive Management Plan to be developed before any further hunting was allowed.
  • The decision of the French court to suspend the hunting season coincided with belated progress from the French authorities to launch an international Adaptive Harvest Management (AHM) process. The AHM process will determine if and when any hunting in the future should take place. The initial meeting was attended by several European governments and international observer organisations from the hunting and conservation communities. The meeting took place in Paris on 18 September. Next steps in the AHM process are likely to include the formation of a Technical Working Group, whose role it will be to identify knowledge/ data gaps (e.g. in relation to migratory pathways, demographic and population parameters) and undertake modelling work to assess the impact of different hunting scenarios on the overall population and sub-populations. Minutes will be made available to the public when they are finalised.
  • The original approval of a hunting season in France had been based on two affirmations:
    • that eastern breeding populations of breeding Curlews (in particular in Finland – where the status of Curlew has recently moved to Near-Threatened list – Belarus and Russia), from where most French wintering Curlews originate, were not in decline;
    • and that the international Waterbird Census suggested that numbers of wintering Curlews were increasing.

These two statements were discussed by participants in the Conference, and it was agreed that further investigation of these issues was needed to clarify the situation. The possibility of a meeting in eastern Europe (perhaps in Belarus?) to review the status of breeding Curlews was discussed with enthusiasm.

  • The notion of a meeting of active Curlew field-workers from across Europe, to exchange practical tips on study techniques and interpretation of Curlew behaviour – the kind of clever insights that never get written down in scientific treatises – was also raised.
  • Reference was made to work on breeding Curlews in the Lower Rhine in Germany, where colour-ringing and raising of chicks in captivity has continued over the last forty years; publicity and dissemination of the results seem highly desirable.
  • Several Polish participants noted that the very active Polish Curlew project, on which a report was presented at IWSG Prague in 2017 (and which has featured in several Curlew Forum Newsletters) was still going strong (as proved by the report of yet another juvenile Curlew with flag J07, released in Poland on 5 July 2017, being sighted at Pagham Harbour in Sussex on 18 September 2019). It seems that one of the problems facing breeding Curlews in Poland is increased scrub invasion of abandoned grasslands where they had previously nested; this issue was also mentioned as a problem for breeding waders by a speaker from Estonia.
  • Finally, there was an almost universal complaint from those who mark Curlews with colour rings on their legs: very few observers look out for rings, and even fewer observers submit accurate reports or photographs of the rings seen. This seems true whether the Curlews have been ringed at Teesmouth, Wensleydale, The Wash, in Gloucestershire or in south Wales. A plea to Curlew watchers everywhere therefore: Please, Please, Please! Do note very carefully the colours and combinations of any rings you see (with a photograph if at all possible): was the ring on the right or left leg? Above or below the ‘knee’? Did any of the rings carry a number/letter code? These observations are valuable not just for tracing the movements of individual birds, but for working out survival rates, a crucial matter in a declining species like Curlew.


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