The heath echoed this afternoon with the calls of Stone Curlews, several dozen individuals of which had gathered together to lounge about and generally pester the local Rabbit population. To my mind, this is the best time of year to watch them; away from the breeding grounds they are less sensitive to disturbance and they are more active, flying low overhead and interacting with each other. One other benefit of watching them at this time of the year is the lack of any heat haze, a common problem during the summer months when you are trying to pick the birds out from the bare arable ground on which they are sat.
Thanks to the efforts of local landowners, managing their land in a sensitive manner, the Stone Curlew population has undergone something of a resurgence in the Brecks over recent years. Following a low point in the early 1980s, when fewer than 90 pairs nested, the population increased to in excess of 200 pairs in 2007. Breckland has always been the heart of the Stone Curlew population, with Stephenson – writing in the late 1800s – that ‘there is little fear … that its presence in summer will enliven the waste for many generations to come.’ Of course, much of the ‘waste’ has gone, and the birds now nest on the arable land which has replaced the heath and sheepwalk.
The Stone Curlew is predominantly a summer visitor, arriving on its breeding grounds from the middle of March. Interestingly, a few individuals have overwintered in the Brecks over the last few years at sites like Gooderstone and Hilborough. More typically, however, the birds depart for wintering grounds in southern France, Spain and North Africa during October. Prior to this (and typically from late July) the birds gather together on traditional roosting sites, with newly independent young loafing about alongside moulting adults. Come evening, the birds disperse to other sites to feed. This makes late afternoon a good time to visit, the birds more active than earlier in the day, and with more chance of seeing them in flight low overhead.
It is a privilege to see these birds so close, and in such numbers. There is something of the prehistoric about them, most probably their huge bright yellow eyes and angular lines, and I could watch them for hours, as they tackle the Rabbits for no obvious reason or fly up at a Rook that has strayed too close. But as daylight starts to ebb away and the birds get ready to disperse, I know that it is time for me to head home and to leave my Stone Curlew watching for another afternoon.