Volunteers from the communities around our project sites are playing a crucial role in Curlew LIFE. As we celebrate this year’s Volunteer Week, Thijs Claes, our project lead at RSPB Insh Marshes, reflects on some of the ways that volunteers are helping their local Curlews.

I take a short break from updating spreadsheets with survey efforts, nest and chick records and avian predator sightings. To stay focused, I needed to put my phone on silent mode. The WhatsApp group of the Volunteer Monitoring Team is always firing through new records and interesting discoveries. I take a moment from the exciting breeding season to reflect on the importance of our volunteer team.

The first volunteer helping me out with some trail cameras was Joel. I remember it very well. Green as I was in the first breeding season during Curlew LIFE, Joel and I spend quite some time looking for Curlew nests, armed with our map of historic curlew records. I dipped my toe in monitoring breeding Curlews, and it was great to have a passionate volunteer, and later good friend, to share this experience with. From then on, I was convinced the Curlew LIFE project at RSPB Scotland Insh Marshes could deliver a lot more with help from local volunteers.

Dedication

I started with looking for two volunteers dedicated to checking 13 camera traps across the reserve. They were installed to monitor the mammal predator activity throughout the four-year project period. The guys doing this work deserve a special mention. Colin and Nolan, who was replaced by David in 2023, make sure the cameras are functioning correctly and enter the data every couple of weeks, without a miss. On Insh Marshes, that sometimes means literally facing wintery blizzards, icy floods, or scorching hot walks through difficult terrain. Thanks to their efforts, the reserve now has an incredibly detailed database filled with information on mammals across the reserve, including seasonal and daily activity patterns and some prey and productivity information.

When approaching the second breeding season in the spring of 2022. I tried my best to come across as an experienced surveyor. The reason? I was training four more local volunteers willing to give up their spare moments to help me look for Curlew nests and chicks throughout the season. It’s an activity that requires more patience, dedication and luck than skill. Luckily my team turned out to have all of it. In the second season we found 16 Curlew nests, almost 250% more than the year before. It allowed us to start seeing patterns of nest density and hatching success appearing across the reserve and identifying some of the factors decreasing the fledgling success of Curlews on the reserve.

Adrian Samuels probing into boggy ground, with cut brush in the foreground and a wet patch and plain behind.

Trainee warden Adrian Samuels improving Curlew breeding habitat by removing shrubs in late winter.

Reaching out

Furthermore, I also envisioned a Curlew LIFE internship, offering a brilliant opportunity to gain experience managing a project on a stunning reserve whilst delivering ground-breaking Curlew conservation work. Callum was the first to take on the challenge. Thanks to his contribution, we managed to complete 64 avian predator surveys, allowing us to get a grasp on another element impacting Curlew productivity. Callum also put his craftsmanship and charisma to use during our first “Curious Curlew Mornings”. These events were designed for visitors and locals to come learn about Curlew, see them laying their nests and raising their broods throughout the breeding season. Corry McCurlew 2.0 is our beloved mascot, drawing attention in the streets of local communities during every World Curlew Day.

2022 was a good year. The large amount of information we gathered started drawing the attention of other Curlew monitoring and research projects, and new opportunities for collaboration and more detailed monitoring emerged in 2023. But who is going to do all that work? You guessed it… some more amazing volunteers. The Curlew Volunteer Team has now outgrown the reserve management team two-fold. They apply their wide variety of skills and knowledge to the Curlew LIFE project, delivering way more than I could ever have imagined. Martine for example, our intern this year, producing lifelike replica Curlew eggs and has engaged more locals than ever before. We’ve also collaborated with local independent journalists publishing photo stories about the project, and, most importantly, we’ve found 26 nests to monitor this year already!

Join the flock

I feel incredibly privileged to work with all these people offering their free time, skills and knowledge to improve the project and I am certain we will create more good memories and deliver even more results next year.

Keep an eye out for our events here on the website and on our Twitter feed and come along to meet some of our lovely volunteers and find out what else we have discovered about the Curlews breeding in the UK’s largest functioning floodplain at RSPB Scotland Insh Marshes.

Or join the Curlew Volunteer Team next year to discover what it is all about for yourself.

Thanks to all our volunteers here at Insh Marshes: Joel, Chris, Morwenna, Nolan, Colin, David, Callum, Helen, Martine, Shirley, Kelly, Alan, Joana, Martin and Amanda, Luke and Adrian.