Curlews in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire

Report from Frank Williams in the Forest of Dean – including Curlews in the treetops!

The site lies on the eastern side of the Wye valley, very close to where the Forest of Dean escarpment drops down into the Wye valley. Much of the Wye valley on both sides is steeply wooded. The open ground to the east of the valley is generally wood, heathland or worked arable ground with typical crops of rape, maize, wheat, barley or oats. The fields left uncropped generally are grazed or smaller hedge-enclosed fields, typically around St Briavels Common. The site is relatively flat at around 200m. and as such is one of the higher open areas overlooking the Wye valley on the eastern side. The main field where the Curlews nest is in fact the highest spot. The field was used for several years as an airfield for a light aircraft, now for sheep and silage production, fields to the immediate north and south are arable. However two adjacent fields are also sheep pasture with much of the remaining landscape either valley side, quarry or intensively arable.  The area is a limestone plateau, draining fairly freely, with no standing water or marshy areas.

From this spot you get a view of some 40 miles to the northwest through low spots between valleys,  where you can see past the western edge of Garway Hill and with Hay Bluff near Hay on Wye to the west and beyond further into Wales. I think it is important that the Wye from this spot tends to head on a more northerly route through Monmouth up to Ross and Hereford. Another important consideration is that the site is on a line from an area between Lydney and Chepstow where Curlew are known to over-winter on the Severn to potential breeding grounds in mid- and north Wales. I believe the site is perhaps a crossroads of “flyways” that migrating birds pass over or close to.

I’m not fully aware of the history of the site as breeding goes but believe it to be a traditional site. My own connection with the site goes back to 2016 when I saw my first Curlew there, when looking for Wheatear. I am led to believe that for several years previously no successful breeding had taken place; whether that meant attempts had been made and failed, or that no attempt had been made, I’m not sure. In 2017 I decided to watch the area much more and was delighted to see a pair of Curlew “on patch” in late March. From the behaviour of the birds they appeared to nest, with only one bird being seen regularly but occasionally a second bird would appear. Various predators – Red Kite, Buzzard and Crow – were allowed to fly over the field without much reaction from the Curlew, unless they strayed particularly close to where I assumed the nest to be.

It was at this point that I contacted the land owner to advise him of the Curlew, thinking it must be getting close to hatching time, to ask if he could delay cutting the hay. The behaviour of the birds changed: both birds would mob any large bird overflying the field, leading me to think that hatching was about to happen or had taken place. This was during the first few days of June.

Curlew amongst mown grass

On 15 June I arrived to find the field had been cut with both adults flying around calling, or walking up and down the lines of mown grass. Indeed, such was the calling, a third adult bird appeared and also landed in the field. During this period I saw an adult, probably one of the resident birds, perch and call for several minutes from the top of a 20ft thorn tree in one of the hedges.

Curlew calling and perched in the top of hedgerow tree

On my next visit the following day I saw both adults still flying around and walking up and down columns of cut grass. The following day only one adult remained. This adult remained for a further week or so before leaving the area. Although I kept a watch every couple of days I didn’t see or hear another Curlew until March 2018. From the behaviour of the birds I’m certain as I can be that they nested and hatched young in 2017, but these young perished because the field was cut.

In March 2018 I saw two adults feeding; one of the adults (I think the female) had an injury to the right leg. Although seen into April I don’t think any attempt at breeding took place:

Video showing the pair filmed at the end of March, clearly showing the bird with the leg injury

On 20 March 2019 I saw my first Curlew on site, this bird was on the highest spot of the nesting field calling, not appearing to feed. Although I felt there was one about a couple of days earlier, but had only caught a brief noise that sounded curlew like. On 23 March a single bird seemed restless and eventually flew off to the west. On 28 March, my first visit for a few days, there were two Curlews in the field. Since 28 March both birds at first seemed flighty, easily being spooked and flying off to neighbouring sheep fields; however since then the birds seem to have become much more settled in the nesting field and much less likely to be spooked, generally only flying to another part of the same field.

As this site in my opinion is so different from what I expect of a Curlew site, are there other sites that get overlooked as they are deemed “untypical” and is this site possibly one of the last of a population that nested on high ground between the Usk and Severn rivers and, if so, are there any others on high ground between the Wye and the Usk?

My fingers are crossed for a successful season 2019 I hope to be able to persuade the landowner to have a more considerate approach this year.

Frank Williams

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