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Curlew

Numenius arquata

The curlew is Europe’s largest wading bird with an extraordinary curved bill and a haunting ‘cur-lee’ call.

They return to our shores towards the end of the summer from Scandinavia and Russia, while those that spent the summer in the New Forest, will head further south to France and Spain.

All about curlew

Their bubbling call is unmistakable, and throughout the winter you have a good chance of hearing it when visiting the coast.

Curlews are renowned for the distinctive shape of their bills. They are long, curved, flexible and packed full of nerves, making it an excellent tool for delving deep into the mud and plucking out tasty lugworms and cockles. In fact, their scientific name, Numenius arquata, refers to their bill – it means ‘of the new moon’.

It’s possible that this curvature makes it easier for curlews to access hard to reach places like worm burrows. If you watch a curlew foraging, you may see them twisting and turning their heads in an effort to extract their prey from awkward places.

The tip of the curlew’s bill is slightly enlarged and packed full of nerves that are highly sensitive to pressure, which means that they can detect the slightest of movements, including bubbles emitted by prey animals – a fatal giveaway as to their location.

It’s thought that they may be able to detect where creatures are hiding based on pressure waves felt when they plunge their bills into the mud; any obstacle would alter the pressure at a specific point, directing the curlew to its next meal.

Their diet varies depending on the season. In the winter, along our Solent coastlines, they use their long bill to probe into soft coastal mud for crabs, ragworms, lugworms, cockles, marine snails, shrimps, small shellfish and earthworms. While in summer, away from the coastline, they feed on non-marine foods such as insects and larvae, spiders and worms.

Sometimes mistaken for…

The whimbrel, a passage migrant which passes through our shores on the way to and from further distant overwintering sites, can look very similar to curlews. Whimbrels are a bit smaller than curlews at about 40-45cm long compared with curlew’s 50-60cm.

Generally whimbrels’ bills are shorter than curlews’, although since individuals of both species vary in bill length, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Whimbrels’ bills are said to be more abruptly bent at the tip: they have a straight bill with a bend at the end rather than curlews’ uniformly curved bills. And compared to a curlew, whimbrel tend to have a stronger head pattern with two dark bands on their crowns separated by a narrower, pale centre stripe. Most distinctively whimbrels have a call which more often than not consists of seven notes, quite different from curlews’ beautiful mournful call.⠀

Local spotlight

Luckily for us, curlews are a common winter visitor to the Solent with around 2000 along the coast at any one time. Winter numbers are relatively stable, however their breeding numbers have declined.

Conservation status

The Curlew is red listed in the UK and they are a qualifying feature for the Chichester and Langstone Harbours Special Protection Area – that means, when the site was designated, a nationally significant number used these coastlines in the winter.

Find out more about the Special Protection Areas on the Solent.

Did you know?

Female curlews are not just larger than the males, they also have a relatively much longer bill, too – sometimes around 18% longer – and can look more curved as a result. This may reduce resource competition between the sexes.

Learn about the Solent’s other wading birds.