In August project staff Lucy, Emily, Sam, Siân and Rhian were astounded to see and hear one last straggler still attentively guarding a Curlew chick up on one of the moors in our project area. This was a surprise since all other Curlews, adults and chicks, in the project area had departed, many of them long gone to the coast after their exhausting breeding season. As a team we have had both the privilege and pain of following the trials and tribulations of the Curlew pairs since their arrival back on their breeding grounds here around Ysbyty Ifan and Hiraethog in late February. From seeing our first Curlew of the year foraging for food in snow through the dry hot spring and into the chilly wet summer this is the story of this year’s breeding season in our project area.

An adult Curlew standing at a small pool of water in a boggy upland moor in Ysbyty Ifan & Hiraethog © Jake Stephen

An adult Curlew at a newly created scrape © Jake Stephen

Our nests and clutches

Building on last year’s success in finding so many curlew nests we threw ourselves into watching curlew pairs and avidly searching for nests this year. This meant hours and hours of sitting and watching curlews attentively after volunteers had made an initial sweep of specific areas known to host curlew pairs. We are extremely grateful to our battalion of some 30 volunteers who walked many kilometres over rough ground to identify potential  curlew territories.

A close-up of a Curlew nest on mossy grassy ground with four eggs in it © Jake Stephen

Curlew eggs in nest, Ysbyty Ifan and Hiraethog.

Once the shallow indentation in the ground with up to four eggs in it had been located, frequently with the help of RSPB arch nest-finder Steve Dodd, staff swung into action quickly erecting a temporary electric fence around it.

Lucy and the rest of the team install a temporary predator proof fence around a Curlew nest

The generous permission of the farmer was essential to this endeavour. During April and May we managed to fence a total of 15 nests spread widely over the 7,063 ha of the project area. This equates to approximately 31% of the estimated 49 Curlew territories identified in the project area. Having carefully weighed and measured the eggs we were able to estimate hatching dates and so we monitored each nest closely at the time we knew chicks were about to emerge.

Our chicks

Close-up of a man's hand holding a Curlew egg and measuring it with a device © Jake Stephen

Sam McCready measures a Curlew egg to estimate hatching date © Jake Stephen

This year we were fortunate to be joined by Sam, an RSPB Senior Research Assistant, who was charged with radio tracking some of the chicks. This was an exciting development on last year since the lightweight VHF tags enabled us to track these broods with a radio antenna during the five or more weeks they forage for food under the watchful eye of their parents.

Once again, the fences proved very effective in protecting the clutches of eggs from predation and so we were rewarded with tagging a total of 35 chicks. We also followed some untagged chicks. Doing this filled us with hope but our high spirits were soon diluted when we discovered many of the tagged chicks had been predated, usually in their first few weeks of life.

For some chicks, we know the range of predators which took them includes buzzards, crows and stoats or weasels. For others, we don’t know exactly what had been responsible for their demise and so Sam had the unenviable task of swabbing chick remains or plucked tags to gather samples for DNA analysis so that the predator can be identified. We hope to get the results in a few months’ time. At the time of writing it appears that very few chicks were taken by foxes this year, which is a notable outcome.

A man in an upland moor holding up an antenna - Sam McCready from RSPB tracking Curlews © Jake Stephen

Sam McCready tracking Curlews using VHF radio equipment © Jake Stephen

We are also able to report happier tidings in that a proportion of the chicks made it through. We know a minimum of 11 chicks fledged from our project area, although there is a possibility that more may have fledged. As readers will appreciate, knowing for certain that a chick has fledged is a rare position to be in and so oftentimes we have to assume this has happened based on the behaviour of the adult around the time a chick is of the age to fledge.

End note

As we look back over the 2023 breeding season we have mixed feelings. We are delighted that we know a minimum of 11 chicks fledged. Along the way we have learnt a lot and are reassured that all the hard work of searching for and finding nests before fencing them temporarily is worth it. By doing so we give the Curlews the best chance at egg stage and so more of them hatch than otherwise would be the case.

However, we now have clear evidence that Curlew chicks in our project area face tremendous predation pressure from a wide range of avian and mammalian predators, and that each pair of Curlews is still not producing a chick to fledging stage every two years, which is what they need to do if the population is to survive. This is despite the incredible efforts of staff, farmers, contractors and volunteers.

A period of reflection is called for. However, early thoughts are that a follow-on project for Ysbyty Ifan and Hiraethog is needed. We are exploring utilising a wider range of interventions which may, or may not, include headstarting Curlew, as part of the package of measures beyond 2024. In the meantime, during 2024, the last year of the current project, we will be continuing to improve the habitat for breeding Curlew, managing the predation pressure during the breeding season, and we hope to radio tag chicks once again.

2023 statistics for Ysbyty Ifan and Hiraethog project area

Max no of pairs – 49

Nests and broods monitored – 28

Nests fenced – 15

Eggs laid in fenced nests – 53

Eggs hatched – 45

Chicks tagged – 35

Minimum chicks fledged – 11