For a birdwatcher, there is something very significant about the arrival of the first summer migrants. Over the past two weeks some of our earliest migrants have put in an appearance, including the stone curlew, a largely nocturnal plover-like bird. The species is the only European representative of a group of birds known as ‘thick-knees’, characteristic of open habitats in dry or arid zones. With its hunched shape and overly large eyes (essential for hunting surface-dwelling invertebrates at night) the stone curlew is one of the most enigmatic birds to be found in Britain. It is also one of our most threatened, with two main breeding populations – one on Salisbury Plain and the other in Breckland. As such, it has been the focus of highly targeted conservation efforts, which have put the species in a far more favourable position.
Spring arrivals typically occur from late March, as the birds return from wintering grounds in West Africa and it is not long before individuals will be on breeding sites. Stone curlews favour areas with a very short sward or significant amounts of bare ground. Here, in Norfolk, arable fields planted with spring-sown crops, like carrots and sugar beet, are used. The birds are very difficult to see as they spend the daylight hours concealed in short cover, keeping a watchful eye over the area around the nest. However, they become more active at night and their eerie penetrating calls may give away their presence locally. The chicks leave the nest soon after they hatch and generally remain in the vicinity of the nest where they are fed on invertebrates by both parents. There have been occasions where over-enthusiastic birdwatchers have disturbed nesting pairs and for this reason (and because the species has strong legal protection) it is best to visit the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s reserve at Weeting if you want to see these amazing birds.
The core breeding areas are all that remain of a wider breeding range following a population decline earlier last century. The recent upturn in fortunes is due to the RSPB/English Nature Stone Curlew Recovery Programme, supported by local landowners. Through the programme, fieldworkers locate and mark the locations of nests, alerting landowners to their presence to reduce losses to agricultural machinery. Other elements of the work encourage appropriate habitat management through financial incentives and collect information on population size and breeding success. The aim is to have 300 pairs nationwide by 2010, with some recolonisation of the previous breeding range. Thanks to the combined efforts of the conservation bodies and the landowners, this target should be reached, something that may provide a useful example for the conservation of this species elsewhere in Europe.