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World Curlew Day

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Eurasian Curlew over-wintering at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve Photo: Iain Robson

April 21st is World Curlew Day. Winter is over and we’re well into spring on the Northumberland coast but we still have a few over-wintering curlew on our shores.

April 21st is World Curlew Day. Winter is over and we’re well into spring on the Northumberland coast but we still have a few over-wintering curlew on our shores. These birds are more likely bound for Finland or Scandinavia than the hills of Northumberland or the Scottish Borders.

The shores and estuaries of the Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty provide food and refuge for hundreds of the Eurasian curlew during the winter months when local birds are joined by birds arriving from colder climes to the north and the east.

The plaintive ‘courl-eee’ call of the first curlews returning to Northumberland’s uplands is the first sign of spring for many hill-folk.

It’s from this call that the bird gets its common name of curlew or Eurasian curlew to give the species its proper name.

Both parts of the scientific name, numenius arquata, come from the long, de-curved shape of the birds bill, numenius means new moon and arquata means bow-like.

In more remote parts of Northumberland as well as in Scotland, the curlew is known as the ‘whaup’ from the noise of the mournful call that they make.

The ‘whaup’ call is accompanied by an attractive ‘bubbling’ display call from birds in flight.

The curlew is the biggest British wading bird.It’s about the size of a herring gull but with much longer stilt-like legs.

They are a bird of the hill and the coast in our county, returning to the upland grasslands of the Cheviots and North Pennines to breed each spring but spending their winter on the coast, probing the soft mud and sand with their long bills for tasty goodies like worms or investigating the rocky shore for soft-shelled crabs.

As the tide comes in, covering mud and sand, curlews can be seen in large flocks on coastal grasslands, arable fields and over-wintered stubbles.

Unlike lapwings, which return to the hill-country during mild spells, even in mid-winter, the curlew only returns when it’s time to breed. Curlews do breed in small numbers on the coast in suitable grasslands but they are not a common breeding species here. 

So why World Curlew Day? 

Well, curlews are in serious trouble. 

There are eight species of curlew worldwide and two are assumed extinct. The Eskimo and the Slender-Billed have not been seen for decades. Out of the remaining six species, three - the Eurasian, the Bristle-thighed and the Far Eastern - are at risk of extinction according to the IUCN Red list of Threatened Species. It is no exaggeration to say that many parts of the earth will lose curlews over the next few decades.

The UK breeding population of Eurasian curlew has nearly halved since the mid-1990s and, in Ireland, breeding numbers are down by a staggering 96%.

Home to a quarter of the world’s curlew population, the UK is the third most important country for curlew in the world, after Russia and Finland.

Their wintering grounds here on the Northumberland coast don’t seem to be the issue; it's a reduction in breeding success that is the main reason behind the population decline.

To survive as a species, curlews need to successfully fledge at least one chick every couple of years. Policies that often govern how land is managed in the UK have resulted in a reduction of suitable breeding habitat and as numbers of breeding pairs reduce, the birds that are left become more prone to predation.

Sir Edward Grey, the 1st Viscount of Fallodon, in his book The Charm of Birds, wrote: ‘Of all bird songs or sounds known to me there is none that I would prefer than the spring notes of the curlew… The notes do not sound passionate they suggest peace, rest, healing joy, an assurance of happiness past, present and to come.

‘To listen to curlews on a bright, clear April day, with the fullness of spring still in anticipation, is one of the best experiences that a lover of birds can have.’

I would, of course, agree with Sir Edward and wouldn’t it be a great pity if this most Northumbrian of birds (it is the symbol of the Northumberland National Park after all) were to disappear from our uplands?

Hopefully, conservation bodies working together on the ground and events like World Curlew Day can influence Government policy can bring about a positive change for our curlews here in Northumberland so that future generations can experience the same joy as Sir Edward Grey did on his visits to the Cheviot Hills.

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Eurasian Curlew in flight at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve Photo: Iain Robson