Herefordshire Curlew Project 2020

Despite the Covid-19 lockdown, or perhaps in some cases because of it, the project has managed to rack up some remarkable achievements this year. Although many of the existing and would-be participants recruited at the Queenswood meeting in March were unable to travel far we had a massive increase in Curlew sighting information both from them and other members of the public, which has considerably enhanced our knowledge on where our Curlews were attempting to nest.

No less than three completely new sites have come to our notice, all with a high or definite evidence of attempted breeding this year! A further three historic sites which had been languishing on our list as only ‘possible’ breeding sites have now been elevated to ‘probable’ or, in two cases ‘confirmed’ breeding locations. Many, in fact most of the confirmed breeding records came in from late June onwards with alarm-calling adult(s) alerting us to the presence of young. This was a useful learning experience and was maybe one we can focus on more for next year. Even though this will not have located a nest site we can at least limit loss of chicks by working with farmers on delayed or restricted grass cutting. However, we learned that young birds can be remarkably wide ranging so actually pinpointing their location at cutting time may not be that easy. Is anything easy about this bird?!

We finished the season with at least six fledged young from three sites and another four sites where young appear to have hatched but probably did not survive. In addition to these another four sites had nests with eggs (sadly predated) and there were a further five sites which showed strong probability of holding breeding pairs.

Thanks to Herefordshire Wildlife Trust, we started the new season with some new equipment – two trail cams, another electric fence energiser and egg/nest measuring tools. I had successfully applied for a nest disturbance licence from Natural England so that we could deploy the latter if required. In the event of course there was little opportunity to use any of these but they are ready and waiting for 2021!

There follows a site by site review of the high and lowlights. Except that it starts with those sites where we have had previous positive results they are in no particular order.

Chris Robinson (Project Leader)

Lugg Meadows 

The site’s proximity to Hereford enabled regular watching throughout lockdown and thereafter. Flooding was prolonged and appears to have affected subsequent grass growth badly, also it possibly affected breeding effort . The pre-breeding numbers during the floods reached a maximum of 29 but only two pairs seemed to attempt nesting. They were extremely elusive and this was never fully confirmed but we suspected that they had been predated. A nest with two eggs was finally found on 7th June and at that point we did not know whether this was a relaid (and incomplete) clutch or just a small nest. This enabled us to utilise our newly acquired nest disturbance licence to weigh and measure the eggs to establish hatch date. Our measurements revealed that one egg was addled but the clutch was obviously a re-lay as the predicted hatch date was July 3rd (although possibly somewhat inaccurate on a sample of just one good egg!). The weather which followed shortly after this was atrocious and the nest had failed by June 22nd.

Sink Green

Early season observation was restricted but subsequently a pair was confirmed to have hatched young as strong protective behaviour (alarm calling) was witnessed on two occasions. Sadly, in a similar pattern to last year this behaviour stopped around mid-June and we had to assume that the young had been predated. Carrion Crows are the likely culprits at this site as there are at least two nests in the field hedgerows.

Broadmeadow Farm, Clehonger

Two pairs of Curlews both laid eggs in spring-sown wheat, an unusual location but an interesting confirmation of how site-faithful these birds are and that they still return despite less than optimum habitat. However, they paid the penalty as both were quickly predated by Carrion Crows, one (probably both) before the clutch was even complete. Both predations were witnessed while the nest was being viewed at a distance through a telescope, a very depressing experience. The first predation was achieved despite the intervention of both Curlew pairs in trying to defend the eggs – an interesting cooperative behaviour we have observed before.
 

Hampton Meadow 

 

Breeding was successful here last year and this year there were several early season sightings of a pair or single birds but prolonged flooding left the grass in poor condition and it appeared that they had chosen to nest elsewhere. This theory was finally confirmed on June 24th with the discovery of a young Curlew being vigorously defended by a parent bird in fields immediately to the east. We negotiated with the landowners to ensure that the grass was not cut and are fairly confident that the young bird did reach fledging. Our attempts with our Gloucestershire colleagues to catch and colour ring it proved fruitless however – like the proverbial needle in a haystack the young are almost impossible to find in tall grass!

Abbey Farm, Craswall

We were alerted to the presence of a breeding pair by a call from the farmer on May 27th. He had just discovered a nest with 3 eggs – the wheels of his quad bike had gone either side of it! The nest was a long way from where Curlews normally nest on this farm and he suspected that the first nest had been predated by crows. He was keen to get stock into the field but was concerned that they would trample the eggs. The timing and number of eggs suggested that this was a re-lay so we waited a couple of days before returning. By this time there were four eggs and we electric fenced the nest and left the bird to incubate the eggs. Sadly, they never hatched - the birds sat for at least 33 days (well over normal hatch date) and by day 35 both eggs and parents had gone. This was very disappointing both for the birds and us as we would have liked to have had the eggs analysed to assess cause of failure. I think we can blame those crows again for the loss.
The Abbey Farm nest safely protected from cattle

Field of chestnut-coloured cattle with hill behind and an electric fence in foreground

The Abbey Farm nest safely protected from cattle

Urishay Common

Many local reports but site visits had variable results. The pair was wide ranging and at one point I suspected there might be two as sightings were so far apart. Once again the location of the (almost certain) nesting pair was not established.

Ball’s Cross area

This is the name we have given to this site in the past as several sightings have been from around Ball’s Cross itself although no nesting site has ever been located. Over time we have expanded our area of search as there appears to be more than one pair involved. During 2020 we received and made many observations from a wide area including Ball’s Cross, Walterstone and Mynydd Ferddin. Visits in mid-June located up to six birds (all adult) which we suspect were pre-dispersal failed breeders. It seems possible that three pairs may have attempted to breed. There was a possibility that grass cutting in some parts may have been a factor in nest/young loss.

Clehonger Court 

No fieldwork was possible this year but the landowner reported that Curlews returned to site in March. As in 2019 it’s likely that agricultural activities would have disrupted nesting in April although one field of ryegrass was due to be sown.

St. Margarets 

This is my ‘home patch’ so I had plenty of opportunity to investigate and some useful leads from neighbours. Initial surveys were encouraging and by third week of April I was confident that I had identified the intended breeding area. After that it all went quiet until the beginning of June (brief calling on one occasion) then the pair reappeared in mid-June in fields at some distance from the suspected area. No young were seen but the birds were noisy at times suggesting they might have hatched young although no real alarm calling was heard. It seems probable that any hatched young must have been predated.

Vagar Hill

Curlew were present as usual in the Draen area but there were too few field visits to establish breeding status. We know for sure from previous years that at least one pair of Curlews must be breeding in this area but we have never located the location. It would be good to investigate in more depth in 2021.

Trewern, Longtown

This area had long been suspected to have breeding Curlews but it was not until this year, with the help of a lot of records and tipoffs from local residents that we finally found the proof. A pair successfully raised one young to fledging. Several of the early June reports were of aggressive behaviour towards overflying Carrion Crows so these are a probable cause of early loss of young.

Brown long-legged bird walking across long grass with hedgerow in background

Young Curlew near Longtown

Holme Lacy

No visits possible by team members but our landowner contact reported seeing a pair in early April here so it is worth intensifying effort in 2021

Eaton Bishop

 

Only a couple of records this year from this historically ‘difficult’ site.

Little Mountain 

We have had limited success at the site in previous years but this year we had some good local records culminating with alarm calling birds in June. It seems highly likely that a pair bred here and young hatched. Their final outcome is unknown but at least one bird was present in the area until second week of July.

Eau Withington

This area has been on our list of ‘possibles’ since the beginning of the Project with sporadic claims from local residents of birds being seen or heard. The area had been visited in 2019 but nothing was found so it was not high on our list of priorities. All that changed on June 28th however when, after a couple of local tip-offs we found an adult male with four large young! Too late to ascertain the nesting site of course but we can assume it was fairly nearby.

Celtic Vale, Longtown

A new discovery. Curlews were heard on a number of occasions and it seems likely that they attempted to breed. Lockdown prevented any intensive fieldwork but it’s a priority for 2021.

Letton Lakes

This is another “historic” site which has been on our list of ‘possibles’ for a while but we have had no resources to check properly. There were a couple of visits this year and these, together with reports from local residents suggest that a pair may have been attempting to nest but we were unable to obtain conclusive proof and the few records we had were quite widespread. The Letton floodplain is a big area!

Michaelchurch

Another new site. Following two separate tipoffs on June 4th I visited the site the following morning to confirm the presence of an alarm-calling adult. The farm tenant advised me that a pair had been present all season. No immediate hay cutting was planned but by 20th there were three (adult) birds together with no behavioural indications that young were present. A pair obviously bred here but it appears the young were lost.

Walford Pools

Yet another new site and a strong possibility that a pair attempted to breed although it would appear that the nest failed due to silage cutting. We only received information about this site late in the season but we have now established good local contacts and hope for a good working relationship with the farmer next year.

Wigmore area

 

Two early season reports but nothing after end of March.

Clifford

The continuing sporadic reports of Curlews in this area both this year and previously strongly suggest that they are breeding in the area. Prioritise in 2021.

Hergest Ridge

We have only one previous record from this site but a late season report from the landowner suggests that Curlews may be present. We managed to make one visit which was negative but this site needs attention in 2021.