Our largest and most charismatic wader is under threat. Find out how you can help.
A long haunting call rings out across the misty mudflats at dawn – ‘Cour-lii’, the bird is almost saying its name. The source of this eerie call is the curlew.
Curlews are one of our most appealing winter shore birds. They stalk across the mudflats and marshes probing with their outlandish beaks in search of vital invertebrates that sustain them throughout the long winter months. The United Kingdom in winter supports one fifth of the entire world population. Arguably the UK is the most important country for curlew in the world. Although we have curlews present all year round, the population is swollen in winter by the influx of Scandinavian and Russian birds.
With a wintering population of 150,000 birds in the UK, it would seem that the curlew is in a good position. However, curlew numbers are declining and it is now a red listed species for conservation. In the UK alone, the breeding population has declined by 50% in 20 years. There are many possible reasons for this ongoing decline, including changes in land management and climate change.
Their breeding success is also declining. In the South of England the curlew is almost extinct as a breeding species with currently only 200 pairs. Even in its former stronghold of the New Forest only 40 pairs were found this year.
Winter is the hardest time of year for birds, with low temperatures and poor weather meaning the birds have to increase the amount of calories consumed. Short daylight hours as well as a small low tide window means that the opportunity to feed is limited. Disturbance in winter means the birds have less time to feed and waste calories flying – calories which are vital for survival. After being disturbed the birds will remain vigilant instead of feeding which causes a further reduction in time available to feed. All these factors reduce the chances of survival for the birds.
The Solent coastline is a brilliant place to find the enchanting curlew. Curlews feed by themselves which reduces competition between individuals for food but this also makes them more difficult to see. They feed on the mudflats at low tide by probing in the mud with their long, curved bills; their plumage provides a perfect camouflage. The best time to see them is on a rising tide as the tide pushes them nearer the shore. This is also the time when they are most vulnerable to disturbances as they are closer to humans. At high tide you’ll often see curlews in fields close to the shoreline.
The RSPB have started a Curlew Recovery Programme to try and reverse the declines of this alluring species. It would be a disaster if the United Kingdom lost this species. All users of the coast need to be aware of all the wintering species and avoid disturbing them. We can all do our bit to give them the highest chance of survival over the winter and hopefully curlews will have a brilliant breeding season next year.
If you have any questions about curlews or any of the birds found along the Solent feel free to stop any of our rangers and ask all you want!