As we celebrate World Migratory Bird Day on 11 May, we’ve been pondering the migrations of the Curlews that breed at our project areas around the UK. Where do they spend the rest of the year? For at least one of ‘our’ birds, we know the answer!

As part of Curlew LIFE, in 2023 we were able to do more detailed monitoring of Curlew at RSPB Scotland Insh Marshes nature reserve, by colour ringing adults and radio tagging of chicks. Then, during the autumn, we got the exciting news that one of the adult Curlews we’d colour-ringed had been spotted in Ireland!

Sam McCready, Curlew LIFE project officer at Insh Marshes, tells us more…

A close-up of 4 Curlews standing in seaweed on a shore. One has an orange leg flag with KA on it. © Myla van Engelen

© Myla van Engelen

“This adult female Curlew was initially ringed and flagged as ‘KA’ on 15 May. While she was with us here at Insh Marshes, she and her mate managed to hatch an entire brood of four chicks through devoted incubation, and two of those chicks were lucky enough to fledge.

“After spending an exhausting breeding season in the Scottish Highlands, protecting her chicks from predation, Curlew KA made the journey all the way to Clahane in County Clare, on the Irish west coast, a distance of 358 miles to the southwest. She was spotted having a well-earned winter rest on the food-rich coast of Clahane on 2 October.”

Sam adds:

“At a time when good news for Curlews is so rare, it’s fantastic to hear of breeding success stories such as this. It’s also a great reminder that for birds that move to wintering grounds after the breeding season, the UK, Ireland and the surrounding countries are highly connected, as should be our approach to conservation.

“Our hope is that we can gather more sightings of this adult Curlew, hopefully even back at Insh Marshes this breeding season, so we can understand more about Curlew movements throughout the seasons, how faithful they are to a given site, and, if we get enough years of data, how long they can survive. This should help inform our conservation and help stop the decline of such a loved UK species.”

It also highlights just how important it is for the public to report sightings of Curlews.

RSPB ringing specialist Steve Dodd, senior research assistant, is supporting ringing at Curlew LIFE sites. He explains what we’re hoping to learn:

“The leg flags enable us to monitor return rates to the breeding grounds – indicating the survival of the birds. It also gives us more information on wintering sites for our breeding birds more widely.”

We plan to ring Curlews at our Antrim Plateau project area in Northern Ireland this breeding season, to learn more about the survival of young birds after fledging, through to breeding age.

“We also want to get more of an insight into how these young birds will recruit into the breeding population in Northern Ireland, and how to carry out management around this to help Curlew recovery there,” Steve says.

In the meantime, we look forward to hearing whether Curlew KA returns to Insh this year!

Delve deeper 

On reserve: The most important RSPB reserves for breeding Curlew support around 400 pairs annually, as well as locally and nationally important numbers. Find out about some of the work that has been taking place across these reserves to ensure that we are providing what Curlew need in this blog by Iain Malzer, RSPB senior ecologist.  

Latest research: Steve Dodd is a co-author of a paper that sheds light on the survival of Curlews that spend the winter in the UK, through colour ringing as well recovering dead birds: Temperature and density influence survival in a rapidly declining migratory shorebird 

Cook, Aonghais SCP, Niall HK Burton, Stephen G. Dodd, Simon Foster, Robert J. Pell, Robin M. Ward, Lucy J. Wright, and Robert A. Robinson. Biological Conservation 260 (2021): 109198. 

Bird ringing at a glance 

Curlew chick with coloured leg flag and ring © Sarah West

Ringing has played a really important part in helping us to understand the amazing migrations of birds. No celebration of World Migratory Bird Day would be complete without a few fascinating facts about this essential tool!  

(Sources include 


What are bird rings & how are they used? 

There are a few different types: 

  • Metal ring fitted around a bird’s leg, with a unique number. It’s lightweight and is a reliable and harmless way to identify individual birds. Reading these rings again later typically involves recapturing ringed birds. 


Curlew KA was flagged. What’s the difference between flagging and ringing? 

A leg flag is a modification of colour rings. They allow for many more combinations to be used across the whole flyway. They are easier to fit than colour rings. 


Why ring birds? 

Ringing birds is essential if we are to learn about how long they live and when and where they move – questions that are vital for bird conservation.  

We are still discovering new facts about migration routes and wintering areas, but the main focus of the Ringing Scheme today is monitoring bird populations. 

Ringing allows us to study how many young birds leave the nest and survive to become adults, as well as how many adults survive the stresses of breeding, migration and severe weather. Changes in survival rates and other aspects of birds’ biology help us to understand the causes of population declines. 


Who does bird ringing?  

The British and Irish Ringing Scheme is organised by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), ringing birds for over 100 years.  

Over 900,000 birds are ringed in Britain and Ireland each year by over 2,600 trained ringers, most of whom are volunteers.  


Do you need a permit to do bird ringing? 

Yes, a BTO ringing permit is a legal requirement for anyone ringing birds. It has to be renewed annually. In order to gain a permit, apprentices learn by practice under the close supervision of experienced ringers. Find out more about becoming a bird ringer > 

For the leg flags we used through Curlew LIFE, we needed to seek specific approval through the BTO, as they are classed as a ‘Special Method’ – different to the standard BTO metal ring. Find out more about licensing > 


Can the public help? 

Anyone can help by reporting any ringed bird you find. Find out more >

You can also train to become a bird ringer.  Find out more >