Curlews breeding in Ireland; where do they winter?

The well-documented crash in numbers and range of Curlews that breed in the Republic of Ireland, and in Northern Ireland has prompted discussion and speculation about where these birds spend the winter. It could be that one reason for the decline is linked to conditions on the wintering grounds; could it be, for instance, that Irish breeding Curlews are affected by the current open season, which allows Curlews to be shot along the French coastline?

Sadly, the answer to the question about where Irish breeding Curlews winter is: we don’t know, because of a paucity of data; though it is likely that they generally stay to winter within Ireland.

The authoritative publication on migratory movements is of course ‘The Migration Atlas: Movements of the Birds of Britain and Ireland’ published by Poyser in 2002, with the leading editor Dr Chris Wernham, who recently spoke at the Conference on the status and future of the Curlew in Scotland (see under ‘Conferences’ on this website). The article on Curlew in this volume (author Iain Bainbridge, who was also intending to attend the Scottish Conference) says : “There are too few data from Ireland to determine the wintering locations of birds breeding there but it is presumed that most stay within Ireland for the winter”. The maps in the Migration Atlas show a large number of recoveries in Ireland of birds ringed in Scotland or Northwest England, but no recoveries at all of birds ringed in the Republic or Northern Ireland and recovered in France. (There is a small number of recoveries in France of birds ringed in Britain, mainly in winter, and mostly originating in Wales, northwest and southwest England).

The British Trust for Ornithology’s Ringing Office has kindly provided details of recoveries of Curlew recoveries related to the Republic and Northern Ireland (see under “Bird Facts” on the BTO website and at : ). For the Republic there are 44 recoveries of birds ringed outside Ireland (one from Russia, 15 from Finland, 14 from Sweden, six from Norway, four from Germany, three from the Netherlands and one from Scotland, none at all from France); there are eight recoveries abroad of birds ringed in Ireland (four in Finland, and one each in Norway, Germany, The Netherlands and the Irish Sea); once again, none in France. As far as Northern Ireland is concerned, there are 14 recoveries abroad of birds ringed in Northern Ireland (seven from Finland, three from Sweden, two from Norway and one each from The Netherlands and Scotland); there are four recoveries in Northern Ireland of birds ringed abroad (three from Finland and one from Norway); once again, no recoveries linking Northern Ireland and France.

These data lend support to the suggestion that Curlews nesting in Ireland and Northern Ireland winter within Ireland, and that very few go to winter in France. Perhaps in a period of very cold weather, some might make a weather movement towards France, but this does not appear to happen very often!

The BTO Ringing Office also reports that up to the present, a total of 732 Curlews have been ringed in Ireland and Northern Ireland, with in 2017 just two in Northern Ireland and two in the Republic. One conclusion might be that it would be good to mark more Curlews in Ireland and Northern Ireland with rings or satellite tags: though with declining numbers there may be few left to ring!

Mike Smart

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