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Numenius arquata (L.)
The curlew is a large wading bird, well known for its very long, decurved bill. Its haunting two-note call and bubbling song was once a familiar sound of the open countryside. However, it has declined as a breeding species in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in northern Europe over the last twenty years. Outside the breeding season, birds arrive from the north and east to winter mainly around the coast.
The curlew is one of Europe’s largest wading birds (48-57cm). It is predominantly a brown, streaked bird with no outstanding plumage features. However, its long legs and the extremely long, gently decurved bill are very distinctive. The sexes are similar, although females have a longer bill. In flight, it shows a triangular white patch above the brown barred tail.
The curlew returns to its breeding haunts in the early spring when its bubbling display song can be heard during aerial display flights. The curlew conceals its nest on the ground amongst long grassy vegetation and four eggs are laid. The chicks hatch after about 28 days and rapidly become mobile, fledging in about 36 days. Not long after fledging, adults and young birds form flocks and move to coastal localities.
The whimbrel is the only similar wading bird found in Northern Ireland. It is mainly a spring and autumn migrant: it is significantly smaller than curlew with a shorter, kinked, rather than gently curving bill. At closer quarters the whimbrel has a distinctive darker cap with central cream stripe giving the effect of a hair parting! The other similar-sized wading birds are the two godwits which both have straight or slightly upturned bills.
How to see this species
In Britain the curlew is well distributed in Scotland, northern England and Wales, particularly in upland areas. In Ireland it breeds in most counties, although it is scarcer in the south and east. In Northern Ireland, most now breed around Lough Erne, County Fermanagh, with smaller populations in the Antrim hills and southern Sperrins. In autumn, many curlew move across to Ireland from northern Britain, and these are joined by additional birds from further afield.
The total UK breeding population is estimated to be at least 99,500 breeding pairs, around 40 per cent of the European population. The Irish population has been estimated at 2,500 to 10,000 pairs with 1,750 pairs in Northern Ireland in 2000. This figure represents a decline of around 60 per cent from the previous estimate in 1987. Outside the breeding season, numbers of curlew in Ireland are swollen by immigration of birds from Britain and Northern Europe. Wintering numbers vary, but in general a maximum of between 6,500 and 7,000 birds is present during the winter. In winter, curlews can be found in a variety of habitats, both coastal and inland, including mudflats, rocky shores, lake shores, and agricultural fields. The most important wintering sites in Northern Ireland are Lough Foyle and Strangford Lough.
Why is this species a priority in Northern Ireland?
Threats/Causes of decline
The decline of curlew is linked to the loss of their wetland habitat mainly through agricultural intensification, including drainage of wetland areas and overgrazing by livestock. Within diminishing areas of suitable habitat, it is thought that curlews are now more vulnerable to predation and this is having a further impact on their population. As a ground-nesting bird the nests and eggs of curlew are especially vulnerable to predators such as foxes and crows. The poor survival rate of young birds is known to be a key factor in the decline of curlew at Northern Ireland sites, and a detailed research programme is being undertaken to establish the exact extent of the problem and provide solutions to it. Agricultural change, including wide scale drainage and heavy grazing has had a negative impact on the curlew’s breeding habitat.
In Northern Ireland, the curlew is a legitimate quarry species during the open season, although it is thought that the numbers shot are very small. It is fully protected elsewhere in the UK.
Conservation of this species
The following targets are taken from the Northern Ireland Action Plan (see links below)
What you can do
Birdlife International (2004). Birds in Europe: population trends and conservation status. Cambridge, UK: Birdlife International Conservation Series No.12.
Donaghy, A. and Mellon, C. (1998). Fields for the Future. RSPB, Belfast.
Grant, M.C. (1997). Breeding Curlews in the UK: RSPB Research and Implications for Conservation. RSPB Conservation Review 1997. RSPB, Sandy, Bedfordshire.
Henderson, I., Wilson, A. and Steele, D. (1999). Population Estimates and Habitat Associations of Breeding Waders in Northern Ireland 1999: The Results of an Extensive Survey. BTO Research Report No. 234. British Trust for Ornithology.
Newton, S., Donaghy, A., Allen, D. and Gibbons, D. (2000). Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland. Irish Birds 6:3 333-344.
Whilde, A. (1993). Threatened Mammals, Birds, Amphibians and Fish in Ireland. Irish Red Data Book 2: Vertebrates. HMSO Belfast.
Text written by:
Allen & Mellon Environmental Ltd.