Perhaps the most surprising sight for me this spring was that of a newly arrived stone-curlew. The bird was sat in a snow-covered stubble field, huddled up against some taller game cover and looking decidedly nonplussed that spring had not followed it north. It was not alone and there were even a few reports of newly-arrived stone-curlews found dead because of the tough conditions. Now, just a few weeks later, things look very different and the warmer weather sees these birds more settled on their traditional Breckland haunts.
The first stone-curlews to arrive normally reach us in late March, having travelled many hundreds of miles from wintering grounds located in Africa. The birds favour nesting sites located in areas with a very short sward and plenty of bare ground. Within Breckland it is the large arable fields with spring-sown crops, like carrots and sugar beet, which are often used. You might think that stone-curlews would be rather exposed nesting in these open landscapes, but they are well camouflaged and easily over-looked. The birds favour open habitats so that they can see the approach of potential predators from some distance. This allows the female to slip quietly off the nest and to leave her eggs secure under the blanket of beautifully marked camouflage.
The stone-curlew is our only representative of a group of birds known as ‘thick-knees’, characteristic of open habitats in arid landscapes. Our small breeding population is concentrated on just two areas, the Breckland of Norfolk/Suffolk and Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. It has been the focus of considerable conservation efforts, both through habitat management to provide the optimum nesting conditions and protection to prevent the unwelcome attentions of egg-collectors or over-enthusiastic birdwatchers. There is no doubt that the stone-curlew is a striking bird with a quirky appearance. Its hunched appearance and over-sized eyes could be something out of a comic book or children’s cartoon and it is easy to fall in love with this wonderful bird.
The fortunes of the stone-curlew owe much to the landowners of Norfolk and Suffolk who welcome these birds onto their land. Were it not for their interest and careful management then there would be far fewer of these birds breeding here. Many of the landowners also work with conservation organisations to make sure that nesting pairs are monitored, so that vital information on breeding success and population structure can be collected. This partnership is vital and sets a good example of what can be achieved by working together. It cannot be easy having a very rare bird breeding in the middle of a field full of crops, so our farmers and landowners deserve recognition for the efforts they have directed towards this unusual bird.