Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata)
Wading birds come in a variety of shapes and sizes but long thin legs and lengthy bills unite many members of this large and charismatic family. These adaptations make it easier for them to feed on the shallow waters and wet ground they are most readily associated with, and which define so much of the Weald Moors wetland character. Grey Heron, Crane, Oystercatcher, Golden Plover, Snipe, Whimbrel, Redshank and, of course, Lapwing are just some of the diverse band that have been recorded in the area but, when it comes to magnetic appeal, there is one local wader that is very hard to overlook…
ID: the Curlew is Europe’s largest wading bird and, with its brown plumage, long legs and protracted downward curving bill, one of its most distinctive. If its appearance were not unique enough, its ‘cur-lee’ call and burbling song are easily among the most evocative, and unmistakable, of any you might hear on the Weald Moors during spring and early summer.
In the Field: many curlews overwinter in coastal estuaries and mudflats, returning to their inland breeding grounds during February and March. Much like the Lapwing, this ground nester prefers open landscapes with limited tree and shrub cover. Consequently, they both tend to favour similar types of habitat, including open moorlands, wet grasslands and unimproved pastures. However, whereas Lapwing require a shorter sward in which to nest, long grasses and rank vegetation are the infield conditions of choice for Curlew — although they also require short, damp tussocky grass to forage for the earthworms and soil-surface invertebrates (including beetles, caterpillars and spiders) that form the main part of their diet. Flushes, boggy areas and shallow pools are also important feeding areas for chicks.
Curlew numbers appear to have halved in Shropshire during the last twenty years, reflecting a wider trend at national level (although a quarter of the World’s population is still resident in the UK). Research suggests that Curlews are simply not rearing enough young to maintain a stable population. Like the Lapwing, their chicks do best where nesting and feeding sites are located closely, and predation of eggs appears to be a major factor driving their decline. Ultimately, this may be a consequence of the fact there are simply fewer suitable locations for them to nest, resulting in poorer sites being more regularly chosen. Loss of wet grassland habitat and intensive grazing is a particular problem in lowland areas and, in Shropshire, evidence indicates Curlew have begun breeding in silage fields, which are cut at least twice in the period before young birds can fledge.
On the Weald Moors: although they have disappeared from many lowland areas, Curlews are still present on the Weald Moors during the breeding season. Nesting in solitary pairs, they have been recorded at a number of locations in recent years including Eyton Moor, Long Lane and Kynnersley Moor. During April and May, look out for birds searching for suitable places to nest across the moorlands. If you’re lucky, you may also witness the courtship displays of male birds, as they steeple upwards on a rising tide of notes before gliding earthwards again upon quivering wings.