NEWSLETTER 9 – APRIL 2020
The Curlew Forum Newsletter 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
(agreed at the 2018 meeting of the Curlew Forum)
“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
- Impact of Covid-19 on Curlew studies and projects
- Establishment of a new charity – ‘Curlew Action’
- Highgrove Curlew summit, February 2020
- Tool-Kit for Curlew fieldworkers
- First stages of the Curlew 2020 breeding season
- World Curlew Day 21 April 2020
- Formation of the Upper Thames Wader Group
- Curlews in Staffordshire
- House building on Curlew wintering habitat at Havant, Hampshire
- Impact on Curlews of plans for a second Lisbon airport
- Curlews at the XV International Ornithological Conference of Northern Eurasia, Belarus, in November 2020
- Posts on the Curlewcall website
This Newsletter reflects the sudden and recent impact of the coronavirus Covid-19 on studies of breeding Curlews in 2020. With the breeding season about to begin, many organizations and voluntary groups were gearing up for intensive action in the field; from mid-March onwards however, it became apparent that these studies would be severely impacted, and in a large measure prevented, by government regulations to combat the spread of the disease.
Impact of Covid-19 on Curlew studies and projects
Within UK, the restrictions from mid-March 2020 on non-essential movement, and the application of measures to make people stay at home, mean that many organizations planning detailed studies of breeding Curlews in summer 2020 were obliged to cancel their fieldwork; in the same way, those who were planning to join voluntary groups studying Curlews have found themselves unable to carry out the planned fieldwork. Thus:
- The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) was planning a major programme of head-starting, to follow up the work begun at Slimbridge in 2019. Plans were once again in hand to take eggs from airfields in East Anglia, to hatch them in aviaries and to release fledged chicks – not just in the Severn Vale, but also in Norfolk and on Dartmoor; these plans have had to be abandoned for 2020. Furthermore, the studies of wild nesting Curlews in the Severn Vale upstream of Slimbridge, initiated by WWT in 2019 in collaboration with local farmers and volunteer observers, cannot go ahead as planned, and will almost certainly suspended in 2020; there will thus be no monitoring of the head-started chicks colour-ringed in 2019.
- The Curlew Country project in Shropshire, in operation since 2016, has successfully carried out head-starting and has carried out monitoring and conservation of breeding birds, again in cooperation with local farmers and communities. Despite support from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, operations in 2020 have been suspended. This means no monitoring of head-started birds from previous years, the more regrettable as some should be returning to Shropshire to breed in 2020.
- The major RSPB activity on breeding Curlews is carried out via the Trial Management Project in highland areas of northern England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Sarah Sanders who is in charge of the project confirms that “In accordance with the government restrictions there will be no fieldwork until further notice”. RSPB has also taken a leading role in several local Curlew projects in lowland England, now in abeyance. The RSPB Curlew project in the Somerset Levels and Moors has been suspended for 2020: Damon Bridge comments, “Everything cancelled down here in Somerset I’m afraid. No fieldwork for this season unless things change dramatically in the next few weeks. Going to just be a missed year/season of both data and action.” The Ph.D. and M.Sc. students from University of Exeter, who were to have begun work this spring in Somerset, will now be restricted to desk studies. The Upper Thames Valley studies, led by the RSPB in recent years (and on which there have been reports in previous Newsletters and on the Curlewcall website), are now being pursued by a voluntary group led by Mike Pollard, whose report is included in this Newsletter; sadly they have had to stop all volunteer surveys in spring 2020, but hope to get reports from farmers and reserve managers in due course. The Curlew studies on Salisbury Plain, previously led by Phil Sheldrake of RSPB, will now be carried out by a voluntary group, though for this year the group’s activities have been suspended.
- In Braydon Forest, Jonny Cooper reports: “In north Wiltshire, like many other areas, all fieldwork has now ceased for the time being. As well as the monitoring work this also includes the planned attempts at catching and tagging birds that we secured funding for. We are currently looking at moving this work to the 2021 season. In the meantime we have mobilised the network of landowners across the Braydon Forest who are diligently looking out for Curlew both at known breeding sites and across the wider landscape.”
- The British Trust for Ornithology had planned in 2020 to repeat their survey of “Breeding Waders of Wet Meadows” (previously carried out in 1982 and 2001), which would no doubt have produced interesting new data on numbers and distribution of breeding Curlews (and other wader species), but this too has been suspended because of coronavirus.
- Other regional breeding Curlew projects in lowland England will be severely restricted in their fieldwork in the same way, since the government recommendations call on everyone, including volunteer Curlew watchers, to restrict their travel to the immediate area of their home.
Establishment of a new charity – ‘Curlew Action’
A new charity to support Curlews and the study of natural history was established at the beginning of the year under the name “Curlew Action”. It has its own website at www.curlewaction.org . Its aim is to raise funds and promote action for Curlew conservation, and for establishment of a GCSE in Natural History. Curlew Action is thus more formal and more action-oriented than Curlew Forum, which aims to be a very informal place for exchange of information on Curlews. There is some crossover in personnel, however, as one of the main movers and shakers behind Curlew Action is Mary Colwell, while the four current Trustees are Professor Tim Guilford of Merton College in Oxford, Roger Morgan-Grenville, Alison Sterling and Mike Smart. Early fund-raising efforts were promising, but Curlew Action too has been hit by the coronavirus, and some of the proposed campaigns are in abeyance. However, Curlew Action has funded part of the work on the Tool-Kit and hopes to support the Curlew section of the Belarus Conference.
Mary Colwell writes: “The GCSE project was to have been launched at the end of April, and David Attenborough had agreed to be present and to give an address, but sadly it is on hold. Work continues behind the scenes while we wait for a new launch – but as with everything else, it is progressing more slowly as OCR, the exam board, has a crisis to deal with re exams this summer! Curlew Action is also producing a film on winter Curlews and it is being edited now. The musician David Gray, a enthusiastic supporter, is writing the music for it and narrating it. It will be ready – I hope – for World Curlew Day.”
Do take a look at the Curlew Action website.
Highgrove Curlew summit, February 2020
HRH Prince Charles had already hosted a Dartmoor Upland Wader Summit in March 2018 (see Newsletter 5), and in February 2020 he welcomed the great and the good of lowland Curlew conservation to a summit on lowland Curlews at Highgrove House. The meeting was chaired by Teresa Dent of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT). The all-day session was notable for the high level of participation – all the top brass of Natural England, RSPB, WWT, BTO and – most importantly – policy makers from government bodies like DEFRA. After technical presentations by a variety of expert speakers (whose names will all be familiar to readers of the Curlew Forum Newsletter) there was detailed discussion of the measures and funding necessary to support active measures for Curlews, including the way that the new Environmental Land Management arrangements might be used to conserve Curlews. The report and decisions of the meeting are currently being completed and should be ready in the near future. They will be presented in detail in a future Newsletter and on the Curlewcall website.
Tool-kit for Curlew fieldworkers
As announced at the Curlew Forum annual meeting in November 2019 and explained in the last Newsletter, a Tool-Kit for Curlew fieldworkers is to be prepared, to give guidance in field techniques for those studying breeding Curlews: everything from how to find nests, to electric fencing to protect nests, to how to interpret different aspects of field behaviour. The plan was to have the Tool-Kit ready for the 2020 breeding season, and to launch the Tool-Kit at a meeting of field-workers (which the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust had kindly offered to host). Sadly, the timetable has proved over-ambitious: it was not possible to get the text ready in the short time available and, in any case, coronavirus has put paid to any hope of a meeting to launch the manual. Nevertheless work on the text will continue and, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, we hope to launch the operation in time for the 2021 breeding season.
First stages of the 2020 Curlew breeding season
Many Curlew Forum correspondents have been submitting notes on the way the 2020 breeding season was unfolding in February and early March. For many of us the main concern was that the 2019/20 winter had been so wet, with almost continuous flooding in several of the river valleys and floodplains in which the Curlews nest. This winter the floodplains really had lived up to their name, and many nesting meadows had been under almost continuous deep flooding from September 2019 onwards; named storms Ciara and Denis in February only made things worse, with Severe Flood Warnings issued all over the country by the Environment Agency. Along the Severn and the Worcestershire Avon, floods were up to two or three metres deep in the second half of February and early March. Higher up the Severn, flooding made the usual spring ringing operations at the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust reserve of Dolydd Hafren (‘Severn Meadow’) impossible for Tony Cross and the Mid-Wales Ringing Group. The Wye in Herefordshire reached its highest ever level.
As usual, however, breeding Curlews arrived back right on time, the first records being very concentrated in the second half of February, no doubt triggered by daylight length,– although it often proved difficult to find them, because the floods made many favourite sites inaccessible, and some birds may have been missed because inaccessible. The first record came from the Lugg, a tributary of the Wye in Herefordshire, on 6 February, with others along the Wye on 10 and 14 February, and records at several other familiar Herefordshire sites in the second half of February. Along the Severn the first bird in Gloucestershire was on 17 February at Elmore Back; then in Worcestershire the first Upton Ham bird was seen on 23 February and at Longdon Marsh (despite heavy flooding) on 27 February. Along the Avon a single bird was seen on the top of a flood-bank emerging from the waters near Bredon on 23 February, and another sitting on a post in the middle of floodwater (!) on 24 February; by 26 February a group of 20 were crowded together on another small area of emergent flood-bank (maybe they had been there a few days earlier and overlooked in their distant corner?). The first record in the inland part of the New Forest in Hampshire was on 25 February, and bubbling Curlews were heard on West Sedgemoor in Somerset by 26 February, and were back in Blaydon Forest (north Wiltshire) by 27 February. The first on higher ground on Dartmoor was not until 17 March.
Several interesting points emerge from these early records in February and the first few days of March:
- It was very obvious that, where their traditional breeding fields were flooded, the birds simply sat at the edge of the floodwater, apparently waiting for the floodwater to clear. Sometimes they would sit on the only small spot of green flood-bank emerging from the water. Yet another demonstration of site fidelity.
- Sometimes these gatherings amounted to quite considerable numbers of birds: up to 36 on the Worcestershire Avon; up to 33 on the Lugg; 29 on the Wye in Powys; 12 along the River Lark in East Anglia; 65 on the Severn at Dolydd Hafren (= ‘Severn Meadow’). In 2020 the flooded conditions may have caused unusual concentrations by day – they simply could not spread out over the meadows as they might have done in ‘normal’ years. Are these groupings perhaps an indication of the number of potential breeders in the surrounding area?
- In previous years, such gatherings have often been observed at pre-breeding season communal evening roosts; in 2020 reports of such evening roosts with over 100 birds have come from Lancashire too, at Belmont and Alston Reservoirs (see item on Curlewcall website). The presence of colour-ringed birds in these assemblies gives the intriguing hint that some of these birds include passing migrants which may be using the same stopover points each year: site fidelity not only on the breeding and wintering grounds, but on migration too.
- Early records have occurred at traditional breeding sites, where breeding attempts have not been noted for some time – sites like Elmore Back in Gloucestershire, Kempsey Ham in Worcestershire, or North Meadow at Cricklade in Worcestershire. Perhaps we should not too easily abandon hope of these sites being occupied again by breeding birds, if the right conditions (notably lack of disturbance) can be created in future.
World Curlew Day 2020
Just to remind you: 21 April has been designated World Curlew Day, partly because it marks the laying season for Eurasian Curlews in northern Europe, partly because it is St Beuno’s Day, the day celebrating St Beuno, a Welsh saint who dropped his prayer book in the sea, where it was retrieved and laid on the shore by a passing Curlew.
World Curlew Day in 2020 is going to be largely virtual. Some field events had been planned for 21 April, notably at the now traditional site along the Severn at Upton Ham; but all have had to be cancelled, because of the risk of infecting participants with the coronavirus.
But never fear! The day will be celebrated virtually on social media, and artists have been invited to submit artworks celebrating the Curlew which will be posted on the Curlewcall and Curlew Action websites.
“Up, down and a possible turnaround – Oxfordshire’s Curlews: past present and future”
A talk by Mike Pollard on World Curlew Day, Tuesday 21 April 2020, starting at 3pm (access to the meeting from 2:30pm).
An opportunity to join a “re-run” of a talk that I gave to the Banbury Ornithological Society back in February. The presentation will be via videoconference using Zoom, which will also enable questions and discussion afterwards. If you are new to Zoom it is easy to use for free from your computer or smart phone/tablet. Works best if you download the Zoom app in advance. To join the talk, you will just need to email Mike Pollard, who will send you the access details, at email@example.com
Formation of the Upper Thames Wader Group
The river valleys of the Upper Thames are one of the most important landscapes for breeding waders across the lowlands of England. For many years they have been a focus for conservation research and action – starting in 1980 with very first pilot survey of lowland meadow birds organised by the BTO. In recent years, RSPB has led co-ordinated conservation work – including both annual and 5-year surveys, Curlew nest finding and Curlew nest monitoring. Last year, discussions between staff and volunteers of the organisations working on wader conservation in the area led to the development of a new partnership approach and the establishment of the Upper Thames Wader Group. We aim to lead and co-ordinate vital conservation action for breeding waders across the Upper Thames catchment.
Our vision is to see Curlew, Lapwing, Snipe and Redshank populations increasing across a network of extensive wetlands and grasslands in the Upper Thames. Our goals are, firstly – to halt the long-term decline in breeding Curlews and Lapwings, and promote a sustainable recovery of their populations across the Upper Thames. And secondly – to enable Redshank and Snipe to continue to increase at Otmoor and colonise sites elsewhere in the Upper Thames.
We will be open, innovative, and collaborative in our actions to restore larger, more connected, and more healthy wetlands in the Upper Thames. This will include facilitating the management and restoration of grazing marsh and species-rich meadows across the floodplains, as well as other wetland and riparian features. Land managers will have access to technical and practical support from the expertise and resources across the partnership to help them improve the prospects for waders on their land.
Group membership is open to everyone with an interest in the conservation of waders, including volunteers, farmers, advisors, and the many other organisations with an interest in the conservation of waders. The group will meet annually in the latter part of the year (October/November) to discuss conservation initiatives, share breeding season results, find out more about current wader research and keep people connected. Group members will receive an annual update newsletter. Training events, seminars and field visits can all be considered, but will be dependent on capacity and resources, which are currently very limited.
Leadership and co-ordination of the Upper Thames Wader Group will be provided by a Board that will comprise a group of organisations each committed to furthering the conservation of waders across the Upper Thames landscape. The Board will take a partnership approach, working together and adding value by playing to strengths, pooling knowledge, sharing expertise, and promoting the importance of the conservation of waders and their habitats across their wider networks. Currently, the organisations involved include RSPB, Berkshire, the Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, Natural England, River Thame Conservation Trust, Banbury Ornithological Society and Environment Agency. We will also seek representation from land managers and advisors from the area, who will provide a farmers’ perspective to the Board.
The Board will meet twice per year to co-ordinate and support conservation action in the Catchment Groups, review the annual wader monitoring results and provide guidance and help where needed. One meeting will specifically focus on the annual review (Aug – Oct), the other will focus on forward planning for the next season (Jan-Feb).
Due to the dispersed nature of waders across the river valleys of the Upper Thames and the specific geographical focus of some organisations, a number of Catchment Groups will be formed – one for each distinctive area of river valley. Five catchment groups are established initially, each with a lead organisation and named Catchment Lead, who will also represent the catchment on the Board.
The role of the Catchment Lead includes responsibility for organising volunteers to carry out surveys and farmer liaison.
For more information about the Upper Thames Wader Group please contact Mike Pollard (Chair of Board) – email: firstname.lastname@example.org . And please note the message (under World Curlew Day) about a virtual talk by Mike Pollard.
Curlews in Staffordshire
Curlew Forum has never previously featured Staffordshire, a county where Curlew breed in both moorland and lowland sites. A recent article in the Bulletin of the West Midland Bird Club by Jonathan Groom of the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, with input from Nick Pomiankowski, the County Bird Recorder, provides much information on Curlews in the county. A summary of the article follows.
Staffordshire Wildlife Trust owns a large area of land in the South West Peak District where Curlews have been known to nest for many years. Jonathan Groom is also a partner in the South West Peak Landscape Partnership Scheme and has a key delivery role in the “Working for Waders” project. This involves visiting farmers and land-owners and providing bespoke ‘wader plans’ on how to manage land favourably for waders. Efforts have been made to locate and protect nests in 2018 and 2019. During this work, numerous records of Curlews have been made and Jonathan has also received records of breeding pairs in other areas. Additionally, several records of birds on territory or with young have been submitted to the County Bird Recorder. The article emphasizes that it is not presenting a comprehensive review of the Curlew in Staffordshire. There has been no systematic survey so it is not certain how many pairs there actually are in the county.
The article notes (a familiar refrain to the Curlew Forum!): “Curlews are a rare site in lowland farmland now. Only six records were made of Curlews at lowland sites.” Records came from one airfield where it was later confirmed that, as in 2018, the nest had hatched and fledged young had been seen. Curlews were heard at another lowland site, but breeding was not confirmed. The Wildlife Trust had been planning to collaborate with the West Midlands Bird Club in 2020 to approach farmers and set up a monitoring programme. Sadly, this plan will no doubt also be a victim of coronavirus measures.
Finally the article goes into some detail on upland Curlew sites in Staffordshire.
XV International Ornithological Conference of Northern Eurasia, 2-7 November 2020, Minsk, Belarus
(XV Международная орнитологическая конференция Северной Евразии, 2-7 ноября 2020 г., Минск).
The decline in the numbers of breeding Curlews in northwest Europe has been well documented in the last few years, and conservation of the species has been recognised as a high priority – in UK perhaps the highest bird conservation issue at national level. Little is known however about the status of breeding populations in northeast Europe and beyond – how many are there? Are they suffering a similar decrease? Are they to failing to produce enough chicks to sustain the population?
These questions came into sharp focus apropos of the plans by the French Ministry of Ecology to allow an open season in France in 2019/20. Among the justifications for the open season was that north-eastern European breeding populations had not decreased like those of the northwest, and that midwinter counts suggested an increase in Palearctic Curlew numbers. Following formal objections to the French Supreme Court by the French Birdlife International partner LPO (Ligue pour la protection des oiseaux), supported from many quarters including Curlew Forum, the Court instructed the Ministry to suspend the open season until a full investigation had taken place (see Curlew Forum Newsletter 7 for details).
The status of north-eastern European Curlews was one of the topics discussed in the corridors of the International Wader Study Group meeting in UK in September 2019, and there was broad agreement that further investigations were necessary. It was thought that a meeting in the region itself (perhaps in Belarus, Russia or Ukraine) would be the best way of learning more, given that it would be easier for Curlew workers in those countries to attend a meeting ‘on home ground’, in terms of visas and costs. Contacts were made with APB Belarus, the BirdLife International partner, and it transpired that the XV International Ornithological Conference of Northern Eurasia was already planned for 2-7 November 2020 in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Such a meeting would obviously attract participation by ornithologists from all over northern Europe and Asia, so seemed an obvious venue for a session on Curlews. In the initial contacts, APB have agreed to the inclusion of a special session on Curlews in the conference, and discussions are now under way on the precise programme of the Curlew session and speakers. It is fervently hoped that the conference, which presents a wonderful opportunity to open a new series of contacts and information on this topic, will not fall victim to the coronavirus pandemic.
House building on Curlew wintering habitat at Havant, Hampshire
At the Curlew Forum meeting in November 2019 Peter Potts reported on plans by Havant Borough Council in Hampshire for a housing development at a major site for wintering Curlews at Hampdon. Further details of the plans were given on the Curlewcall website (News item dated 20 January 2020). Many Curlew observers were concerned at the loss of this feeding ground (also important for other species such as Brent Goose) and felt that the proposed mitigation were inadequate. Details of a number of objections to the proposal were given on the website, and some website readers added their own objection. The outcome of the Council proposal is awaited.
Impact on Curlews of plans for a second Lisbon airport
Another recent post on the Curlewcall website (news item dated 28 February 2020) gives details of a proposal to construct a second Lisbon airport at the Montijo/Samouco military air base on the Tejo (Tagus) estuary, which has been given provisional approval by the Portuguese authorities. The site is the most important wetland in Portugal, second only in Iberia to Doñana in Spain, and hosts large numbers of wintering waders from all over northern Europe, including good numbers of Curlews. This may well be the biggest current threat to any major wetland along the East Atlantic Flyway. The Curlew Forum Standing Committee has written to the European Commission and contacted the Ramsar and AEWA secretariats, calling on them to intervene with the Portuguese authorities; all three have acknowledged the Curlew Forum intervention, and further details are awaited.
Posts on Curlewcall website
By way of a postscript, please remember to consult the Curlew Forum website at www.curlewcall.org. The website carries information on Curlew-related topics between issues of the Newsletter. Recent items (over and above matters mentioned in this Newsletter like Havant or the proposed second Lisbon airport) have included: interesting updates on pre-season roosts of Curlews in Lancashire; recoveries of colour-marked Curlews from the Usk estuary in Wales; speculation on whether Curlews are site-faithful not merely to breeding and wintering grounds but also to migration stopovers; and sad news of the death of one of the founding fathers of the international Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Mr Eskandar Firouz.
Even better, please submit information, articles, and comment for posting on the website!