Holding on to Hope in a Curlew's World

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Posted on April 29, 2020


Notes April 26, 2020  "We head out, almost 7pm, overcast and cooler than the last few days, and the sky is quiet. We pass through the usual gate and then cross the first field with dry ribbon of a beck to our left. We climb the next gate and course across the meadow, slowly, tentatively looking at the ground at our feet. Where would a curlew choose to nest? I find myself thinking: ‘if I were a curlew ...’ but I know, for sure, that I can’t begin to imagine.

I catch sight of a curlew above me, silent, gliding in a wide circle. Rob and I come back together and decide to cross through the next open gate, aiming for the far wall where I saw the bird drop from its flight.  

Almost immediately I see a curlew rise from the grass about 200 metres in front of us, fly low, then settle about five metres away. Instead of keeping my eye on the bird I keep my eye on the spot from where if lifted - and try to focus on the pattern of dandelions there. Rob watches the bird and we both see it lift again, and fly away. We walk ever so carefully, eyes down, to the small constellation of dandelions. I’m not sure if I’m looking for a bird sitting, or for a nest, or an egg, or two. I’m not even sure what colour the eggs would be, or how large. 

I’m a bit concerned that the birds may be nesting in the next field, which is grazed by sheep and yesterday was sprayed with muck - and that’s not good news. I keep looking at the long, clover-rich grass at my feet though, eyes sharp. Deep down, I expect to find nothing. 

Then Rob lets out a quick Aha! He’s found a nest. Four beautiful, perfect eggs in a scrape in the grass. Utterly beautiful. My instant reaction is to take myself away, minimise any disruption. Rob takes a photo, and also leaves. Then we realise we should pace the distance from the nest to the wall so we can find the nest again - we head back but, guess what - we can’t see it. This is the birds’ exquisite camouflage, developed over many centuries. The nest has become invisible."


Finding the curlew’s nest has been, for the last month, an insistent, pressing purpose for us. For many years we’ve watched adult curlews flying across the fields around us and we’ve always wondered where they nest - not just out of curiosity, but because if the nest site is known the farmers can take measures to protect the eggs and the chicks. We love curlews, their looping song, their form and their gentle slow lifestyle; and we are concerned about them. These birds are in danger of extinction*.

A curlew’s nest, however, is not easy to find. And until now, we’ve been too busy with work to make time to sit, for hours on end, and observe. But this year is different. In a parallel non-Covid universe we would have been wandering in the New Forest creating a film and series of poems as part of a wider conversation about Earth Law, and we’d also be getting ready for our installation at Wye Valley River Festival. But the country’s lockdown has offered a possibility: time has expanded, and we’ve been grounded.


Quite possibly because of this change in everyone's lives, in early April a local farmer got in touch with us to see if we’d like to keep an eye out for some curlews. James Robinson, who lives a few miles away, is committed to doing the best he can for the wildlife on the land he farms. When we received his email, our response was an immediate and excited Yes. We’d been hoping for an opportunity like this for years.

‘I was wondering if you would like to spend a bit of time observing them? You are very welcome to go onto our land and spend as long as you like on there watching what they are doing. We will be turning some heifers out up there in about 3 weeks, so ideally we’d need to know about any ground nests. I know Mary Colwell, who is a curlew conservationist, and she’s sent me some guidance on how to protect the nests from grazing livestock.… Please don’t feel obliged to go and do it though, I just thought it would be an excuse for some outdoor people to spend a bit less time cooped up inside. Give me ring if you think it’s any good...’


Most days since April 11th we’ve been walking to the same four fields close to our home, and sitting, and watching, always on the look-out for curlews, trying to work out whether they might be nesting, and if so, where. This isn’t so far from what we do in a lot of our practice: we’re familiar with being slow and sitting for long periods. But ordinarily we behave a little more like magpies, and from a fixed point in a landscape we watch different component parts as they catch our eyes. Looking for curlews has refined our focus, drawn it in: it’s all about these birds. Our ears have been acutely tuned for their calls: the song that bubbles up when a bird alights or lands, the repeated single note that’s a little more like a conversation, the alarm call that comes with defence, and the silence, which is perhaps the most important sound. It’s when you can’t hear them that they’re trying their hardest to remain inconspicuous.

There’s a gentle quality to this waiting and watching, and a need for patience. In the spaces between the curlews’ occasional appearances we’ve noticed so much more. We’ve come to know the local buzzard, to expect the quick dash of the snipe that hunker down in the rushes. We’ve watched the fields begin to change colour as dandelions, mouse ear and cuckoo flowers appear. We’ve come to know the patterns of local farmers who visit their sheep on quad bikes each morning, bringing with them an uproar of bleating and baa-ing as they dish up the daily food. And we’ve felt the air change from late-winter cold to spring warm. 


Notes, 19th April  "Here we are again. Sunshine and clouds that lie flat like lazing cats. It’s another quiet and sunny morning, with the slightest breeze. Most of the morning sound comes from ewes and lambs, bleating and groaning at one another; the low chug of a quad bike doing the rounds to give feed to the sheep; rooks punctuating the air with a groak from time to time. There have been a few goldfinch, flying over our heads with a dipping flight and a chatter, their red heads catching the low sun. And three snipe, rising from their concentrated mud-picking with a quick cry. 

We walked here up the middle of the main road, idling along the white lines. A walk through near silence. Now we’re sitting on the pile of stones at the high point of the middle field, looking out across this landscape of grass and stone walls, and over to the road. From time to time a car drives past, or a pick-up, or a quad. Imagine - there might be 80 or 90 percent less traffic on the roads than there would have been before the lockdown. There’s a quiet and an emptiness. Cars have become something of a rarity - to see two at once is almost a surprise. Sitting on a cold stone, pondering this, it strikes me there’s a metaphor right there, and I think about the quietness of the morning, and the birds. Between 1970 and 1999 some birds populations have dropped by more than 90% and many have dropped by at least 50% (**). The emptying of song and feathers across England has come about in less than a century. Look at the quiet roads, I think to myself. Listen to the change in acoustics with the absence of traffic noise, the absence of aeroplanes. Many people have been noticing the sounds of birds more than ever before. But listen also to the spaces, the emptinesses in between the song. These spaces mark what has been lost. They also hold a kind of waiting: they could swell with song and feathers once again, depending on what we, as humans, do."


We suspected we would learn a lot about the curlew purely by repeated observation. And that has been the case. But it hasn’t been enough. As well as patience, we’ve needed information. And we’ve been bowled over by the generosity and enthusiasm of a couple of people who’ve come to our help. Mary Colwell, a naturalist, producer and author who is dedicated to curlew conservation and has set up the Charity Curlew Action, shared her stories with us. Mary walked 500 miles, from western Ireland and across England, to discover more about curlews and raise awareness of their plight through her book Curlew Moon. She’s full of wisdom and information, yet didn’t hide her excitement about what we’re discovering. And although she knows more than most, Mary was keen that we speak to others who are probably more clued up about curlews than anyone, and put us in touch with a couple of experts.

Within a day we were chatting with David Evans, research officer with the Severn Curlew Project. His expertise comes from studying lowland populations.  He listened carefully as we described the behaviour we were watching, and shared lots of details with us - how far a curlew might walk to and from its nest, how long a curlew sits on its eggs before changing with its partner, what different flight patterns mean, how sensitive they are to disturbance, and how we can keep our impact to an absolute minimum. He also spoke about conservation work in Shropshire and Norfolk, and the practice of Headstarting, where eggs from one area are hatched and the chicks are hand-reared and relocated in another. This year, because of lockdown, a lot of conservation work has been massively reduced. It turns out we’re in quite an unusual position: we have the time to sit and watch curlews that are within walking distance of our house.


Notes, 22nd April "Another bright and cloudless sky. Four-and-a-half weeks since the last rains. Every day starts fresh and yellow-blue, and opens up to sunshine. The easterly wind, though, brings a chill, and plays tricks with sound - we hear a curlew start up and its song is scattered by the wind. And then it’s gone. Instead there is the slim and beautiful line of high notes from a chaffinch, some distance away, and the melodies of skylarks as they hover and fall, slowly, to become invisible in the grass.

We saw a curlew in rapid flight, pursuing a black bird - a crow, probably, or a rook. Then there’s another rising alarm call and a curlew racing after a wide-winged crow, shouting at it, banishing it. Closer to us, a single curlew is quietly grazing. I watch it through binoculars until my hands turn frigid. From time to time it bends its neck and preens itself, scimitar beak in feathers. Then there’s another alarm call and a second bird races through the air, chasing crows."


The thrill of finding the nest left us with fast-beating hearts. As we walked up the road we saw a curlew drop down close to the nest within a few minutes of us walking away, out of site beyond the long dry stone wall that dissects the field. For a brief moment, I imagined finding the nest was ‘success’. But of course it’s only the first step, one event in an unfolding and uncertain stage of life. The birds need to sit patiently on the eggs for around 28 days, defending them from curious and hungry predators. And then, once the chicks have hatched, the parents need to continue their guard until the young are able to fly, which is another five weeks.

A lot can happen in that time, but we’re holding on to hope. The curlews are really good at what they do - being protective, keeping out of sight, and things could go in their favour. Having shared stories of our trips to the field on social media, we’re receiving news of people in the county seeing more curlews than they have in previous years. This may be that they, like us, have more time to go and look, but it may also be a good sign that there are more out there.

We’ve been encouraged to keep monitoring them from a distance, and we’ll be talking to James and curlew experts about practical measures to improve the chances for this potential family. We will share the story of these birds in the next blog and through our social media channels.




* Notes on Curlews:

These birds are Europe's largest wading birds. They spend their winters on coastal estuaries, and fly inland to breed - but they have such a lot to contend with as they attempt to bring a new generation of chicks into the world. Their fluting call is beautiful and hearing it is a source of joy; but just because there are curlews in the fields, it doesn’t mean all is well. There are worrying signs across the UK that eggs/chicks are not doing well. Curlews can live for 20 or even 30 years (sometimes more). A sky full of curlews doesn’t guarantee a new brood is arriving - it only proves that the adults are persistent, and will keep trying. They lay eggs in the wide open where they offer temptation for crows, buzzards and gulls and, on the ground, for foxes and badgers. If the birds lay in a field of sheep, the eggs may be kicked or disturbed, with dire results. And if the grass in a field is cut while the eggs are in the nest, or when the chicks are tiny, they have little chance of making it. The odds are stacked against them. Studies suggest that numbers of curlews have declined by around 65% since the 1970s, and low chick survival rates mean that there could be a species collapse, with the old birds dying out, and not enough young to take their place. Help from specific projects, organisations and individuals could make a real difference.

To find more information head over to these websites:

Curlew Action (https://www.curlewaction.org/). 

Eurasian Curlew Recovery (encompassing the Severn Curlew Project):   https://www.wwt.org.uk/our-work/projects/eurasian-curlew-recovery/ 

Curlew Country: https://curlewcountry.org

The RSPB site gives a quick overview and a recording of their song: here

You can follow James Robinson on Twitter : https://twitter.com/JRfromStrickley 

(**) RSPB decline figures: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/how-you-can-help-birds/where-have-all-the-birds-gone/is-the-number-of-birds-in-decline/


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