Close your eyes, open your ears, and imagine the scene of a dampened misty morning, a quiet country place, bright green grass glinting with dew, and a dark figure rising up from its long bluish grey legs. A figure on wings rises from the verdant carpet with a brownish straight body and an absurdly long bill. Curloooo! Whaup whaup! Curlooooo-aloo-aloo-aloo!
There is only one bird this could possibly be: The Curlew.
Curlews are iconic birds of wild, wet, places – estuaries, mountain slopes, bogs and moorland, meadowland, and coast. They have inspired place names, poets, artists, musicians, and writers for generations. They have given us so much, yet we are allowing them to slip away as we change their habitats (afforestation, intensification of farming, drainage of bogs, and fragmentation), with associated issues including food shortage and excessive predation. Conservation work including through the Curlew Conservation Programme is underway to try and bring Ireland's breeding Curlew back from the brink and ensure the unmistakable and evocative call of the Curlew - Curloooo! Whaup whaup! Curlooooo-aloo-aloo-aloo! does not become a distant memory.
The returning Curlews and their iconic call hail the arrival of spring, longer days, and warmer weather. The breeding birds arrive in flocks from early March onwards normally congregating around inland lakeshores before splitting off into pairs looking for open damp areas like bog, damp grassland, farmland, and heath, or if they are an established pair returning to their historic nest sites.
Curlew are largely site faithful, returning to the same field or area of bog annually and believed to be largely philopatric, which means they return to breed in the area in which they were hatched themselves. By mid-April the birds should have set themselves up in their territories and be looking for the perfect place to build a very simple nest on the ground, scraping a slight hollow and lining it with grass, moss, or fragments of rush.
The arrival of warmer evenings and more insect life in May marks the female Curlew's egg-laying journey, most commonly they will lay between 3 or 4 mottled brown and dark green eggs. The eggs are large, and it can take over a week for the female to finish laying her clutch for the next 4 weeks. Both male and female Curlew take turns incubating the eggs. Curlew are ground-nesting birds, making them quite vulnerable to predation.
Curlew are Europe's largest wader- they have a wingspan of almost one meter and stand around knee height at 50-60 cm. Their most distinctive and distinguishing feature is their long, downward-curved bill at 15cm from base to tip, beautifully curved in the shape of a crescent moon (which gives them their scientific name).
So, what has caused this dramatic decline in breeding curlew, and if we still see them around the coast, can they really be so endangered? Curlew typically lay 4 eggs in nests on the ground in boggy land or lightly grazed cattle pasture where there is a mix of high grass and rushes for camouflage, and shorter vegetation where newly hatched chicks can forage.
Changes in farming practices, increased grazing intensity, draining of bogs, afforestation of marginal land, and under grazing of some areas has reduced the availability of nesting sites for Irish curlew.
Curlew Conservation Programme
The Curlew Conservation Programme, coordinated by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, was established in 2017.
It has run in Leitrim for the last five years with the help and support of local the local community farmers and landowners, who have been instrumental in the conservation of this iconic and much-loved bird.
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