Lowland Curlews on their breeding grounds, February 2020

Most Curlews breeding in lowland and southern England return to their breeding grounds in late February or early March. This year was no exception and, despite dramatic flooding in many of the breeding areas in river floodplains, the Curlews seem to have returned at their usual time, and are now standing about at the dry(ish) edges of their territories, waiting for the flood to recede. The first birds returned in early February, but there was a much more marked influx from coastal wintering grounds in the last week of the month.

This note aims to collect information kindly forwarded by observers from groups studying Curlews all over southern England, and indeed further afield in The Netherlands; it is inevitably most comprehensive for the Severn and Avon Vales in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, since that is my home patch. Many thanks to all those who have submitted their sightings; any additional information from these or other sites would be most welcome.

Winter 2019/20 has been particularly wet, and February 2020 has been the wettest on record throughout the UK. In the Severn and Avon Vales, there has been heavy flooding practically from the end of September 2019, and from the middle of February the Severn has been constantly overtopping its flood banks, with water levels second only to the famed summer flood of July 2007. The Wye has recorded its highest ever flood levels, causing considerable damage in the Hereford area.

Upham Meadow in the flood

The first records of returning Curlews came from the Wye: Chris Wells reported one from Hampton Meadows along the Lugg, a tributary of the Wye, on 6 and 14 February; one was at Sink Green along the Wye on 10 February, two on 14 February. On 25 February there were two non-ringed Curlews on Lower Lugg Meadow, feeding on edge of the floodwater; they were joined briefly by seven non-ringed Curlews, which then departed north west; on 27 February, there were again seven (the same or different birds?), then eleven later in the same day. Were these larger flocks local breeders, congregating before serious breeding gets under way, as often happens early in the season; or were they passing migrants en route to breeding sites further to the northwest?

Along the Severn, the first birds were recorded at flooded grassland sites near the estuary in Gloucestershire. Eric Palmer saw two at Elmore Back on 17 February (not found again on 20 or 21 February); Andy Jayne found three on 22 February by the edge of the floodwater at Walmore, with one still there on 23 and 27 February; meanwhile at nearby Wilmer Common, Rodley, he found five by the floods on 25 and nine on 27 February.  These three sites are very close to the estuary, and while Curlews have bred there in the past, the birds seem more likely to have been migrants just setting out on their journey back to the breeding grounds. Meanwhile, further up the Severn Vale, north of Gloucester, and up the Avon Vale, north of Tewkesbury, the second half of February produced the heaviest flooding of the winter, and many of the normal breeding sites were under several feet of water, hence inaccessible to observers. This did not seem to deter the Curlews however: at Upton Ham, along the Severn between Tewkesbury and Worcester, the first returning Curlew was recorded on 23 February, sitting on a narrow strip of grass between the flood and the river. At another Worcestershire site near the Severn, Longdon Marsh, three Curlews were seen sitting on a small grassy island amidst the flooded meadows on 27 February. Along the Avon, the first two birds were seen by Andy Warr on the top of the flood bank on 23 February, while on 24 February Rob Prudden noted a single Curlew sitting on a post in the middle of the floodwater! Near Twyning on the Avon, a group of 20 Curlews were sitting on 26 February on the only tiny patch of green grass emerging from the floodwater – the very top of the flood bank; they may well have been there before that date, as their chosen spot was difficult to observe and could hardly be seen from normal observation points; 28 were at the same spot on 27 February, while Gavin Peplow recorded 36 on 29 February.

Very interestingly, one of those present on 27 and 29 February was a colour-ringed bird; it was originally thought to have been a female, ringed on its wintering ground on the Severn estuary near Chepstow in September 2011, which has repeatedly been seen since at its estuarine wintering ground, and since 2015 has been seen every year in the breeding season at this breeding site in Twyning. The bird ringed near Chepstow was marked with a white ring on its left tibia, and a blue ring over a yellow ring on its right tibia; the bird at Twyning had white on the left tibia, but only yellow (no blue) on the right tibia: of course, the blue ring might have fallen off. But it is much more likely to have been another female, ringed on its breeding field a mile or so from Twyning in March 2019, with a small numbered white ring on the left tibia and a yellow ring on the right tibia; unfortunately the numbers are very small and difficult to read at a distance. This latter bird has just been seen back on its breeding field.

Moral: (i) only record what you see, not what you think you have seen; (ii) this makes it even more likely that the flock of birds clustered on the flood-bank were the local breeding population. Some of them may perhaps have been migrants on their way through, but these concentrations of local breeders often occur at the beginning of the breeding season. In drier springs, the birds often congregate to roost round water bodies, but in this exceptionally wet year, the whole of the Severn and Avon Vales are one vast great water-body, so it will be difficult to identify individual evening roost sites.

Practically all observers on the Severn, Avon and Wye have commented on the extraordinary sight of Curlews gathering at the accustomed time of year around their usual breeding fields, now flooded, apparently waiting patiently until the waters go down. Will these conditions have an effect on their breeding later in the year, and on the food resources available for them or their chicks? Will this be a year when conditions mean that they simply do not attempt to breed?

Further up the Severn in Shropshire, Mandi Perkins reports that a head-started bird was seen (not quite in the Curlew Country landscape) on 7 February; this was one of the 21 birds released on 20 September 2018 on the Stiperstones and had not previously been spotted. On 17 February a farmer (always one of the first to see them return) reported the first sound of a Curlew within the landscape.

From the Somerset Levels Damon Bridge noted that Curlews were bubbling on West Sedgemoor on 26 and 27 February.

In North Wiltshire Jonny Cooper noted on 27 February that the first two birds were back close to Blakehill (a known breeding site) in the Braydon Forest.  From the New Forest, Russ Wynn commented that the first Curlew was back on 25 February in a regular feeding area for birds breeding on the adjacent Open Forest; he added that wet conditions might benefit breeding waders this spring, as they hinder both predators and people.

At The Nunnery roost at BTO headquarters  at Thetford (where a pre-breeding roost of over fifty birds occurred in 2019, some birds being colour-ringed there), Samantha Franks noted on 26 February that the roost had begun to form again, with seven birds so far; so (as she comments) it clearly wasn’t a one-off event; and a similar roost seems to be forming on the River Lark flood meadow.

Worth keeping an eye open for these early season roosts, which often attract many potential breeders from the immediate area, and thus give observers an early indication of how many pairs are in the area.

Finally, reports from The Netherlands show that Curlews wintering in Britain are already back on continental breeding grounds. Two more of the Curlews colour-ringed on the Severn estuary have already been seen: Gerrit Gerritsen reports that a male, also ringed on the Severn estuary on 27 September 2011, was back with an unringed female at the Zwarte Water reserve in the province of Over Ijssel on 21 February, where it has occurred as a breeding bird in four different previous summers. Meanwhile Jaap van der Linden reports that another old friend from the Severn estuary, ringed in the same catch in September 2011, was back at Rosmalen in Noord Brabant on 29 February. It has been seen in mid to late February at the same spot every year without fail since 2012 – another confirmation of Curlew site fidelity on the breeding grounds.

Mike Smart
3 March 2020

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