Sharp-eyed Curlew watchers in the vales of the Wye, Severn and Avon have for some time now been looking out for the return of the first breeding Curlews to their nesting grounds. In 2018 the first bird, a singleton, was back at the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust reserve at Coombe Hill Meadows near the Severn as early as 5 January, and stayed there throughout the month in spite of extensive flooding; further birds then began to appear in mid-February. In 2019 the first Severn Vale bird was at Coombe on 11 February, with up to 20 birds congregating at a pre-breeding roost there over the next ten days; Upton Ham had its first bird on 12 February, while the first record on the Avon was at Lower Moor near Pershore on 17 February.
This year, after almost uninterrupted flooding since the end of September 2019, the usual nesting meadows have been under water for long periods. No January records this year, and the first returning Curlew was reported by Chris Wells on 6 February at Hampton Meadows on the Lugg (a tributary of the Wye) in Herefordshire; a single Curlew was again at Hampton Meadows on 14 February, while one was seen at Sink Green, on the Wye proper, on 10 February, with two on 14 February.
The first Gloucestershire record inland (i.e. away from the wintering grounds on the estuary) in 2020 came from Elmore Back, south of Gloucester but fairly close to the estuary, a former nesting place, though not in recent years a prime Curlew site; this year it was one of the few riverside sites not to be completely flooded when Eric Palmer found two on 17 February; perhaps they were passing migrants, as none were found there on 20 or 21 February. This record was followed by three seen by Andy Jayne “on the edge of the floodwater” at Walmore Common on 22 February, with one still there on 23 February; again, given this site’s proximity to the estuary these may have been passing migrants. There has already been a record of a colour-ringed bird, first marked on the Severn estuary back in 2013, at its accustomed breeding ground in The Netherlands on 21 February; this conforms to the pattern of previous years, when colour-ringed birds wintering on the Severn estuary have returned to The Netherlands by mid-February. The coloured rings in different combinations allow observers to identify individual birds.
Despite Severe Flood Warnings (the highest level) in force near Upton-on-Severn in Worcestershire (see illustration by John Dickinson), one bird nevertheless returned to Upton Ham on 23 February. As the observers noted, “Ham still completely flooded, just a thin strip of green land emerging from the flood along the Severn bank”. Then on 24 February reports came from the valley of the Avon above Tewkesbury, also in Worcestershire; at Bredon’s Hardwick Rob Prudden noted a bird “sitting on a post in the middle of the flood, 500 yards from the nearest bit of dry land”, while a little further up the Avon, Andy Warr saw two in heavily flooded fields.
These first observations confirm once again that the birds come back to their traditional sites at much the same time every year, whatever the conditions on the ground. In time of flood in previous years they have been seen sitting patiently at the water’s edge, presumably waiting for the water level to drop. 2018 was a bad year for them with two big spring floods, one in March another in April, not to mention the June heatwave. In 2019, there was a fairly large flood in March, followed by a small but damaging flood in mid-June, just at the wrong time of the year, as the chicks were growing up. We shall see what 2020 brings. Please keep submitting the records!