This is a blog about my experience and thoughts as a volunteer of Cri’r Gylfinir/CurlewLIFE project in the Ysbyty Ifan and Hiraethog area. This is an initiative to prevent the extinction of a well-loved wading bird as a breeding species from Wales. I spent a season doing weekly surveys and monitoring sessions designed by the project team. Initially I went into this project being a sceptic of the conservation of endangered species, but after this volunteer experience I now recognize its value and have a deeper understanding of its shortcomings too.

Curlews are well loved by Welsh people and are fascinating, charismatic and oddly cryptic birds with a beautiful set of calls. They are ground nesting birds which means they are highly susceptible to their nests, eggs and chicks being predated, ploughed, or trampled.

Despite this, once a curlew chick has fledged and it’s able to fly, its chances of survival as an adult bird is actually quite high. One of the CurlewLIFE project aims is to identify where the curlew breeding territories are and then protect their nests during the key moments of potential predation.

I came into the project as a newbie to the world of bird conservation and to be perfectly honest I didn’t care either way about curlews. To me it was just another tragedy of our age. My thoughts were, perhaps naively, that it’s better to build ecosystems from the bottom up and let what species are going extinct to pass on naturally. In my opinion targeting one species can cause unintended consequences, and often excludes other species from competing fairly for their own existence.

To give you a taste of what I did as a volunteer, one Sunday afternoon when I was monitoring my assigned curlew nest I watched a pair of curlews fend off predator after predator from their chick. One parent would be watching from a high position while another would be in a basin feeding with the chick. If a potential predator came, the sentinel would call and alert the parent below. If the threat was particularly serious, they would both fly up into the air and see off the offending bird.

The parents would never land next to their chick and it was only after an hour or so of observing very carefully and concealing myself (which is very hard on moorland) that I ever got a glance of their chick. They are masters of deception, distraction and camouflage and their chicks are constantly under threat.

When I finally did see the chick, after two weeks of failed attempts, I was very happy, and it was a real feeling of achievement – this was definitely the highlight of the season. I saw them again each week for three weeks in a row, and then they disappeared. We think the chick did indeed fledge and survive. Not all of the curlew families were that lucky.

After observing curlew intimately for a season – watching them set up territories, lay their eggs, incubate them, fledge their chicks and move on, I’ve developed an appreciation of their complex behaviours and eccentricities. It was also a pleasure to learn about bird surveying in general and how to gather accurate data for ecologists in the RSPB, not to mention the perplexing nature of trying to find a curlew nest, which seemed to be a combination of voodoo magic and curlew behavioural divination.

I would encourage anyone who is curious about these issues to spend a season watching these fascinating birds. Join the CurlewLIFE Project and see if you can extend your sphere of compassion and at the same time learn about conservation, agriculture and the environmental issues we are faced with in our age. These are very complex issues, but that shouldn’t stop you from doing something about them, even if what you do is never quite enough.