Volunteers are a crucial part of the Curlew LIFE team. We quite simply couldn’t achieve some of our goals without their hard work and dedication, supporting our project teams on and off reserve in three of our five project areas. With the Curlews now back on their wintering grounds after a busy breeding season, we look back over the wide range of tasks that our volunteers have helped with this year – and the vital difference they made.  

 It’s late February 2023. Curlews are starting to arrive at their breeding grounds, including at our project areas. They’ve spent the winter on the coast, building up their energies for the demanding season ahead. It’s a time of anticipation for our project teams and volunteers.  

What will the birds make of the habitat improvements done during the autumn and winter? Can we help more Curlew chicks to survive through to fledging this year? Those are among the questions that our volunteers will help to answer at RSPB Geltsdale nature reserve and Hadrian’s Wall in northern England; Ysbyty Ifan and Hiraethog near Betws y Coed, North Wales; and RSPB Scotland Insh Marshes nature reserve at Kingussie in Scotland. The volunteers are preparing to take on slightly different tasks in each area, reflecting the varying landscapes and challenges. 


RSPB Geltsdale nature reserve & Hadrian’s Wall 

Two people holding a covered writing pad in a field, looking out over the field, during volunteer training at Hadrian's Wall © RSPB

Volunteers put survey theory into practice at a training day at Hadrian’s Wall © RSPB

By February, recruitment is under way for a residential volunteer at RSPB Geltsdale nature reserve, to help us find, protect and monitor Curlew nests. Meanwhile, across at Hadrian’s Wall, the kettle’s on and the projector’s powered up for the first of two training days for the team of thirty volunteers, who’ll carry out four types of monitoring to a fixed timetable over the next five months. There are 15,000 hectares of farmland in the project area here – it takes a lot of boots on the ground to monitor how well the Curlews do across such a large zone. It’d be impossible for our project officer to do it alone.  

Among the volunteers is Chris Smith from nearby Warwick Bridge. This is his second year of volunteering on the project, and it’ll turn out to be a very hands-on season for him and one where he’ll pick up new conservation skills.  

“I’d just retired when I saw an advert for the role in 2022 and thought it looked really interesting,” Chris said. “I’d watched birds on and off all my life but I’m not an expert by a long way. “It’s a chance to make a positive difference to an iconic species and meet people from different walks of life.” 

Investing in skills

The volunteers are joined by Will Bevan of the Species Volunteer Network (SVN), an RSPB team dedicated to supporting volunteers off reserve who are working on species recovery projects. The RSPB knows that volunteers will play an ever more significant role in this work, greatly increasing the organisation’s capacity to help the recovery of our most threatened species, including Curlew, Turtle Dove, and Corncrake. The SVN invests in developing these volunteer teams, providing opportunities for volunteers to gain specialist skills and knowledge and to have rewarding experiences doing their part to protect the natural world. 

After a half day covering the theory, it’s time for an afternoon out on the farm fields, putting the survey techniques into practice. Some of the volunteers are new this year, with varying levels of knowledge and experience – from beginners through to lifelong birders. 

Boots on the ground

Surveying gets under way in mid-March, with a one-month window for carrying out habitat assessments. Volunteers don their boots and walk a route around their allocated farms. Is it improved grassland? Bog? Are there trees or scrub? Is it grazed? Give it a score for how suitable it is for breeding Curlew. Some volunteers put their data straight into an app in the field, and others are noting their results on paper recording forms. 

The first 12 days in April are the window for carrying out the first predator scat survey. The volunteers are out walking a fixed route looking for scat and working out whether it belongs to a fox, a badger, or someone else entirely. Scat photos handed out at the training days help to make an ID. As before, the results get logged in the app or on paper. It’s repeated during a ten-day window in June.  

Andy Scott RSPB Geltsdale residential volunteer kneeling in an upland field beside small weighing scales with a Curlew egg on them.

Andy Scott, RSPB Geltsdale residential volunteer, weighs eggs at one of the Curlew nests he found.

Back at RSPB Geltsdale, Andy Scott has been appointed as the season’s residential volunteer for Curlew LIFE. He’ll turn out to be a dab hand at finding Curlew nests. Read Andy’s blog post reflecting back over his experiences >   

We’re now into mid-April and it’s time for the fun bit – the first of two bird surveys. The volunteers head out armed with maps of their patch, recording sheets, and a list of bird species to record – ranging from ground nesting birds to potential predators. They walk a route, noting down where they see any of the target species and how many there are. For a few key species, they also record their movements. It’s all crucial information for building up a picture of the environment the Curlews are breeding in. 

Now for nests 

Throughout all their survey visits, the volunteers keep a weather eye out for Curlews arriving and starting to establish their territories. By the time of the first bird survey, the volunteers have a fair idea of which areas the Curlews have chosen, and some are already nesting. Come the second bird survey in mid-May, most of the breeding Curlews are on eggs and the earliest hatchlings are already starting to emerge. 

Nests on a few chosen farms will be protected with temporary electric fences, helping to keep mammalian predators at bay. Chris is among those who volunteer to help.  

“I had training sessions up at RSPB Geltsdale and then helped the project staff to fence four or five nests,” Chris said. “That was a really good opportunity to do something practical and hands-on to help. I learned new skills and it was very satisfying to see how successful that was. It was interesting seeing the birds flying off out of sight when you put the fence up and then coming back and settling down on the nest when you’d moved away. I also found that I met more of the team through doing the nest protection. Otherwise, you don’t see the other volunteers and staff when you’re out doing your surveys, until the end of the season get-together.” 

A man in a field holding a batch of poles - RSPB volunteer Chris Smith helping with Curlew nest fencing at Hadrian's Wall. © RSPB Sam Turley

Volunteer Chris Smith helping with Curlew nest fencing.

Disturbance is kept to a minimum when putting fences up, with training to ensure they can be installed quickly and with checks made after they are installed to see that the adult birds return to incubation.

With the chicks hatched, the volunteers now make regular visits to monitor the Curlew territories. They watch the behaviour of the adult birds to assess whether they have chicks on the ground. If there is a curlew still frantically alarm calling and standing guard after five weeks, it’s a great sign… at least one chick of the brood has survived and is about to fledge. Sometimes the volunteers manage to glimpse the chicks, and sometimes they can only go by the behaviour of the adult, with the chicks hidden in the upland vegetation. 

Building knowledge

Chris enjoyed getting to know the birds’ behaviour.  

“It’s not until you sit down and systematically watch them and record what you see that you learn what their behaviours are,” he said. “It’s always interesting to look back at your notes and piece them all together, as it does show patterns and what their behaviour means. When they started nesting, it was great to see them and their chicks. 

“I also valued the chance to explore parts of my local area that you wouldn’t normally see, going onto private farms. Not many people get the opportunity to do that. I enjoyed talking to the farmers and it’s clear they are very proud of the birds on their land and the things they do that help the birds.” 

Chris is already planning to sign up again for next year. 


Ysbyty Ifan and Hiraethog 

Steve Dodd, RSPB, speaking in front of a projector screen with a slide of a Curlew on it and the words 'Curlew nest finding' © RSPB Jaki Bell

Steve Dodd, RSPB, leads volunteer training on Curlew nest finding © RSPB Jaki Bell

Our Ysbyty Ifan and Hiraethog project team has grown its volunteer group since 2022 to around thirty in order to survey their 7,083 ha project area.  

It’s the end of January, and they have assembled in Pentrefoelas community centre for the first of two training sessions. Potential volunteers hear all about Curlews and their plight in Wales. They get an overview of the project, what they as volunteers will be doing and the specific timescales. 

Excitement is in the air, partly because this is the time that names on emails become real people and everyone starts to get to know each other. After a bit of end-of-session chit-chat over a ‘paned’ (a ‘cuppa’ in English) everyone commits or not to one or more of the surveys – habitat, predator scats and Curlews.  

Coming together

A group of people looking out over a field, some with binoculars, at training for volunteers on Curlew nest finding © RSPB Jaki Bell

Volunteers scan a Curlew nesting area as Steve Dodd, RSPB, advises © RSPB Jaki Bell

A month later, with a thin layer of snow on the ground and sub-zero temperatures outside, everyone who has committed to take part has gathered at Ysbyty Ifan Memorial Hall to receive training in survey techniques and apps after a short talk about the area, its Welshness and tips on being farm aware. The practical session outdoors proves to be a bit of a test in hardiness, which everyone seems to pass with a smile on their face before a welcome paned and flapjack. Project staff are beaming as a result of the compliments – they seem to have set a standard in the refreshments department! 

A key focus for the team is finding as many Curlew nests as they can, so that they can be protected with temporary electric fences. This year, there’s an added incentive to find nests. The hatchlings will be fitted with tiny transmitters by a specially trained RSPB conservation scientist, so they can be tracked after they leave the nest. It will give the team a much better understanding of how the birds use the landscape, how many chicks fledge, and about the fate of the chicks that don’t make it. 

Curlew stake-outs

Three people putting poles into the ground in an upland field for temporary electric fencing to protect a Curlew nest. © Jake Stephen

Putting up temporary electric fencing to protect a Curlew nest © Jake Stephen

The volunteers take advantage of a training day on nest finding, arranged by the project team. The RSPB’s Steve Dodd shares insights from his many years of experience of finding nests – reading the birds’ behaviour, making best use of vantage points and other tips and techniques. The volunteers and project team will spend many hours in the field, staking out the notoriously sneaky Curlews to pinpoint their nests. They’ll also be out day after day checking territories where nests haven’t been found, watching for clues about the whereabouts of broods and monitoring their progress. 

Read about the experiences of one of last year’s volunteers, Keegan >

Ysbyty Ifan & Hiraethog update June 2023 >


RSPB Scotland Insh Marshes nature reserve 

A man sitting in front of a tree with a rucksack and survey notepad, facing the camera with an upland landscape behind

Curlew LIFE volunteer David Sim at RSPB Insh Marshes © Martine Stead

When it comes to monitoring birds on a floodplain, like this RSPB nature reserve, things must be done a little differently. No prospect of walking fixed routes for surveys here, amidst the many pools and difficult marshy ground. But the seven-strong volunteer team are up for the challenge.  

Joanna Gilliatt, Shirley Lynch and Helen Skuodas are from the local area, with David Sim, Colin MacLennan and Alan Cameron travelling from other parts of Scotland. Completing the team is Martine Stead, this year’s residential volunteer, on placement for six months.

David Sim lives in Edinburgh but will visit Insh Marshes regularly this season. Summing up his motivation for volunteering, he said: “I wanted to help with maintaining and improving natural spaces and their biodiversity, learning about wildlife and ecology in the process.” 

One of David’s roles will be monitoring footage from the fixed trail cameras installed around the reserve to capture mammal predator activity, along with fellow volunteer Colin. 

Skilling up

It’s late March and preparation for the 2023 Curlew breeding season is under way, with the volunteers taking part in the first of two training sessions. The focus is on nest searching and introduces the volunteers to the different vantage points around the reserve, what to look out for, and how to record potential sightings. An extremely busy WhatsApp group is set up to share information.  

The volunteers start the crucial tasks of nest searching and chick monitoring, which they’ll carry on into July, working individually or in twos and threes. As with Ysbyty Ifan and Hiraethog, there’s radio tagging happening at Insh Marshes this year, so it’s all the more important to find nests. But it will pay dividends, given how incredibly difficult it is to monitor the birds as they move large distances around the marshes.  

Join the nest hunt in Martine’s blog > 

This year sees a significant increase in volunteer effort from previous years, and it pays off in terms of numbers of nests located (28) and the amount of information gathered about the movements and behaviours of the various broods.

Chick focus   

A group of five people facing the camera with trees in the background - volunteers and staff at RSPB Insh Marshes

Volunteers Shirley, Martine, Joanna and Helen with project officer Thijs at RSPB Insh Marshes

It’s mid-April and Martine is now conducting weekly avian predator surveys, which she’ll do until the end of June.  

“I carried out these hour-long surveys from seven vantage points around the reserve, recording the presence and behaviour of potential avian predators, which are mostly corvids, gulls, and birds of prey,” she said. “When you look at the hatching and fledging success rates in different areas of the reserve, this information on predators in each area gives really valuable context.”   

We’re into early May, and there’s a second training session for the volunteers. They’re learning how to spot chicks and assess their age, and how to use radio tracking equipment. The volunteer team also helps with two massive, coordinated chick counts, when all areas of the reserve are simultaneously searched over a five-hour period, tallying up the surviving chicks.   

The volunteers also get involved in the wider work of the reserve. Joanna Gilliatt, who lives on the edge of the reserve just a few minutes from the RSPB office, also joined Martine on the weekly Wednesday volunteer work parties, helping to control invasive species, monitor Goldeneye and general maintenance. Her experience as a volunteer has given Joanna a new perspective on her area. 

“I’ve lived in Insh for nearly 28 years, but it was only when I volunteered for Curlew LIFE that I began to really learn about Insh Marshes and the natural world around me,” she said.  


Raising awareness

Across all three project areas, volunteers also help to raise awareness about Curlews. At RSPB Scotland Insh Marshes nature reserve, Martine coordinates five public engagement events – a World Curlew Day roadshow around three of the local villages, and four Curious Curlew Mornings, at which members of the public can meet the Curlew LIFE team, find out about the project and join in the search for chicks through the reserve’s scopes. More than one hundred people take part, including locals and holidaymakers.   

One of our Hadrian’s Wall volunteers, Glen Graham, led a Curlew ‘Walk to Wellbeing’ in association with Northumberland National Park, while Eirian Lewis, of the Ysbyty Ifan and Hiraethog volunteers, helps out on a project stand at Llanrwst agricultural show. 


It’s a wrap

Fast forward to the end of July. Most of the Curlews have finished breeding and headed off back to the coasts. For the volunteers, it’s time to catch up on paperwork, finishing off their final survey recording sheets, logging their hours in the RSPB’s online Assemble system for volunteers, and claiming back any final expenses.  

It’s August, and the project staff at in three areas are organising thank you and review sessions for their wonderful volunteers. They’ll look back over the results of the breeding season, reflecting on how all the Curlew pairs have fared. It’s also a chance for the volunteers to share how their experience has been, so that it can be even better in 2024.  

“Having a team of such dedicated volunteers has allowed the Curlew LIFE project to cover a much larger area than if staff undertook the work alone,” said Ian Cole, project officer for the RSPB Geltsdale and Hadrian’s Wall area.  

“Their hard work greatly increased the number of territories observed and so much more data has been generated by having our volunteer team, even at farms where we ultimately had no Curlew nests. Our volunteer-led surveys allowed us to look at subtle differences between areas and explore why one farm may hold several Curlew territories and another may not hold any. By having such great coverage of Hadrian’s Wall, we were able to find those stronghold areas and target these for future visits, to see where chick survival rates were highest.” 

Looking ahead, our project teams hope that involving volunteers will also help to ensure the impacts of Curlew LIFE are felt beyond the end of the project. Thijs Claes, our project officer at RSPB Scotland Insh Marshes nature reserve, said: “Getting members of local communities involved helps to ensure the project has a legacy, because it installs a sense of ownership and responsibility over the plight of Curlews in the local community.”

A huge thank you to all our volunteers! 

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