Sarah West, Senior Research Assistant, looks back over a busy season at RSPB Geltsdale and on farmland in the Hadrian’s Wall area.

I’ve been working on the Curlew LIFE project this spring and summer to find and monitor as many curlew nests as possible, contributing to vital research to help save this much-loved declining species.

Finding curlew nests can be a tough job, as they become very secretive when nesting; quietly sneaking away through the long vegetation to sit stock still on their highly camouflaged eggs. Finding their nests often involves watching pairs for several hours, noting where they spend their time early on in the season and watching for any changes in behaviour which might suggest that they’ve got a nest hidden somewhere nearby. If you’re very lucky you might stumble upon a curlew nest by chance, but the chances of finding a nest by accident like this are slim. But that’s where the efforts of the project staff and volunteers becomes invaluable! This team worked tirelessly to survey large chunks of suitable nesting habitat several times throughout the season, recording where they saw curlews and what they were doing when they were seen. This information was incredibly useful as it allowed me to focus my nest finding efforts on birds that were obviously paired up and avoid devoting time to birds that weren’t nesting at that time.

Curlew chick with coloured leg flag and ring © Sarah West

With the help of these staff and volunteers, I was able to find a whopping 27 nests across RSPB Geltsdale and Hadrian’s Wall! After finding each nest, I took photos and a grid reference of its location and I returned once a week to check whether the nest was still going, or if the eggs had been predated. I installed cameras on some nests to determine which animal species were responsible for nest predation, and I weighed and measured the eggs, and used a formula to predict when the eggs were likely to hatch. Curlew chicks leave the nest cup within 48 hours of hatching so it was very important to know when the eggs were going to hatch, as my role also involved putting radio tags on some of the newly hatched chicks to gather information about where they go, which habitats they prefer, and how many chicks survive to fledging. Once the chicks can fly they have a much better chance of survival, but it takes about 6 weeks from hatching to flying, and it is important for us to know how many of them survive to this stage to understand whether management at sites is effective.

Hatching success was well above typical rates, and was slightly higher at RSPB Geltsdale than at Hadrian’s Wall, which was a brilliant start to the season! Approximately 50% of chicks that hatched were radio tagged and those that weren’t tagged were ringed and a small orange flag was applied to the upper leg so that the individual birds could still be recognised. I spent the latter half of the season covering a lot of ground with a large radio aerial, scanning different frequencies to locate the radio tagged chicks and getting a lot of funny looks from passers-by. After getting a signal, I watched the birds from afar and noted which areas and habitats they were using. The radio tags will drop off as the chicks grow, so I re-caught the chicks at intervals to reattach the tags and take measurements to understand how quickly the chicks were developing.

We expected to lose some chicks to predation or other factors before they got to fledging age, and it is always sad when this happens. But without the radio tags it is very hard to accurately count how many chicks survived to fledging. Preliminary results suggest that it has been a good breeding season this year, with some pairs fledging two or even three chicks! A curlew pair needs to fledge at least one chick every other year to maintain the population, so it was great to have such a successful season this year, and I hope that next year will be just as successful. However, we don’t know what happened to some of the chicks that were only given leg flags and not radio tags, and we need your help to find out! Please report any sightings of curlew with leg flags via the link below, or email us the details, and help us determine the fates of these birds.

A very big thank you to everyone involved this year, including RSPB reserve staff  and Curlew LIFE project staff who gave up their time to help me find nests, and the dedicated volunteers who carried out bird surveys in their spare time and provided such important data on the location of curlew pairs, as well as the farmers along Hadrian’s Wall who very kindly granted me access to their farms to find and monitor these nests and chicks throughout the season. It’s been a great year, and I hope next year is just as successful!

Sarah West – Senior Research Assistant