Baby Curlew 1 July 2017
I had a very interesting day looking at Curlews along the River Avon, both the Worcestershire and Gloucestershire banks, on 1 July. One site on the Gloucestershire bank is a Lammas meadow, cut late for hay (not silage) and above all, cut gradually, strip by strip; access by the public is not allowed in the breeding season from 1 March to 31 July, to avoid disturbance of ground-nesting birds. Rather little of the hay had been cut (less than 10%), but the Curlews, both young and old, seemed happy feeding on the cut strips. Looking along the cut strips from a distance with a telescope, I could see two young birds of the year: one was already able to fly (which is a very early date, last year I saw fledged birds from 9 to 23 July); it was obviously a young bird from the short, only partly de-curved beak, and from the bright spangled plumage on the upperparts – dark centres and buff edges, recalling juvenile Ruff. The second youngster was nearly full grown, but with no proper tail and only a fluffy ball of down at its rear end, and the wings not yet fully developed, not showing beyond the tail, so not yet flying; presumably two different broods. When I approached, the fledged bird flew off on its own; the other one disappeared, no doubt lying doggo and burying its way into the grass; one adult (apparently a male) hung around, very anxious, repeatedly giving the two note alarm call (“cour-LEE”, accent on the second syllable, repeated rapidly), which is no doubt the signal to big chicks to lie doggo. Another adult got up a bit further on in the long grass, doing the five note alarm: I suspect this call means that there is another brood in there, with perhaps slightly younger chicks. At this site last year, a little group of fledged birds of the year were present for a few days, in a group together, after the last adults had left; I took them to be locally bred birds, but they might of course have been passage birds from elsewhere; I’ll be interested to see if the same happens this year.
I then moved to the east bank, in Worcestershire. In one hay meadow there, I have seen fledged young in the last couple of years. On previous visits this year, I have found adults present on this field, but on my last visit, there was no sign of them, though I walked right through the field. I walked right round the field again on 1 July, and had almost completed my circuit, without seeing any Curlews. Then, suddenly, only ten yards away, a very agitated adult rose, calling desperately, and I heard quiet calls, apparently from young birds. When I looked closely I found two freshly hatched young, with large remains of eggshells still in the nest, (see pictures); they were so young, they didn’t even run away or burrow; I think they must have hatched that very day. This shows, firstly, how closely birds will sit, without rising at the approach of an observer: it’s very easy to overlook birds acting so secretively. Secondly, this is an incredibly late date for hatching: it must be a replacement clutch. The young won’t be flying until about 5 August, even if they manage to escape hay-cutting: I’ve spoken to the farmer, who is sympathetic, but he needs to cut his hay some time! After this, I then visited another nearby field, where the farmer purposely leaves his fields uncut until the Curlews have fledged. He has already seen young in this field, and on my visit there was an anxious adult doing the five note alarm: I’m sure there is at least one young bird in the long grass. At this site, there was a flock of up to 15 adult Curlews in mid-June: I take these to have been failed breeders or non-breeders, gathering in a flock before departing to moulting and wintering sites on the estuary and coastline. No sign of them on 1 July, just the one anxious adult.