The largest European wading bird, the Eurasian curlew is easy to identify with its elongated bow-shaped bill and spindly legs. In winter groups of curlews known as ‘curfews’ forage together in coastal wetlands, and up to 66,000 pairs breed in the UK and are resident all year round.
Curlews are tall waders, around the same size as female pheasants, but with slender blueish-grey legs and a long dark grey crescent-shaped bill that curves downwards. Their buff-brown upperparts are streaked with darker markings, while their underwings are pale, and their belly and underparts are off-white, marked with darker mottling.
Females and males are largely indistinguishable. Their plumage is identical and the only marked difference is the length of the bill – a female’s bill is marginally longer than a male’s and in general, a female is slightly larger and heavier. However, from a distance or when studying a lone bird, it is impossible to accurately judge whether a bird is male or female.
Juvenile curlews are similar in appearance to adult birds, but have more buff colouring on their breast. Their flanks are more heavily streaked, and their upperparts have some brownish spotting and darker edges to some feathers.
Curlews are giants among European wading birds, with females typically being slightly heavier than males.
Length: 50-60 cm (20-24 in)
Wingspan: 89-106 cm (35-42 in)
Range: 410-1,010 g (14.5-35.6 oz)
Average: 770 g (27.2 oz)
Range: 435-1,360 g (15.3-48 oz)
Average: 1000g (35.3 oz)
The curlew takes its name from the distinctive, piercing ‘cour-lee’ sound, used all year round as a contact call or display signal and also as an alarm call. They are also well-known for their low-pitched rising bubbling song, heard during courtship.
Curlews have a varied, but primarily carnivorous diet, which includes shellfish, worms, shrimps, crabs, berries, seeds, small fish, insects, and even small birds, reptiles and amphibians.
As males and females have different bill lengths, they tend to head for separate foraging grounds. Female curlews feed on coastal mudflats while males forage mainly on cultivated grasslands.
Baby curlews are initially fed on earthworms, larvae and caterpillars. Once they have left the nest, curlew chicks join their parents foraging in grassland for spiders and insects.
Curlew wading and foraging for food
Curlews breed on a range of habitats, with rough grasslands, moorlands and bogs providing an ideal landscape for building their nests, foraging for food, and raising young. In winter, they head for intertidal mudflats, saltmarshes and agricultural land, foraging particularly for cereal crops. Once the coldest months are over, they head back to upland areas of pasture, wetlands, and heathland.
The British Isles and France form the western limit to the curlew’s range, and they are present across Western Europe, as far north as the Arctic Circle, to the Urals and River Volga in the east.
In winter, many birds migrate south from the northernmost regions of the range to milder climates in the United Kingdom. Some travel as far south as the Mediterranean coasts of Spain and north-western Africa, with other birds migrating as far east as the Persian Gulf and western India.
An estimated 212,000 to 292,000 pairs of curlews live in Europe. Of these, between 76,000 and 88,000 are resident in Finland, 45,000 to 66,000 are in Britain and Ireland and 45,000 to 100,000 pairs in Russia.
Moorlands and bogs are great places to spot Curlews
Although curlew population numbers remain fairly high and they are resident over a wide range of habitats and geographical regions, these giant waders have become a cause for concern, with declines in their breeding ranges and habitats. They are becoming increasingly rare, and conservation efforts to attempt to preserve their habitats and reverse the decline exist.
Curlews are resident in the UK all year round, with most concentrated in Scotland (around 60 percent of the breeding population) and the remaining birds mainly across the north of England. Wintering birds arrive on UK shores from July onwards and can be seen in coastal regions further south than their breeding ranges, as well as across the island of Ireland.
Eurasian Curlew in flight
Curlews commonly live to 20 years, although up to 30 years is not unheard of. The oldest ringed pair of curlews recorded were 32 years old. However, the odds are stacked against young curlews surviving beyond the fledgling stage.
Curlew populations are in severe decline, thanks in part to the species’ poor rate of fledgling survival. A rate of just 0.2 curlews per brood make it to adulthood, which is the equivalent of each pair producing only one chick that will reach maturity every five years
Foxes and carrion crows are among the common predators of curlews. Curlews frequently nest near kestrels, and are thought to benefit from their presence, as this sees off additional predators. However, although they do not prey on curlew eggs or adult birds, kestrels will opportunistically take young wader chicks.
Curlews were added to the Red List on the UK Conservation Status Report in 2015, highlighting an urgent need for conservation efforts to save the species from further population declines. Curlews are also protected under the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA), a UN treaty that aims to preserve habitats for threatened wetland species across Europe.
Over recent decades, curlew populations have recorded a sharp decline in numbers, and this has been reflected in their conservation status being upgraded from a species of least concern to near threatened.
Eurasian curlews’ habitat is under threat from increased farming on upland pastures, causing loss of safe and suitable breeding sites. Drainage of land for agriculture and encroaching development and reforestation projects also limit areas that curlews can successfully breed in.
A pair of curlew in the meadow
Nests are constructed by male curlews, and are a shallow depression dug into the ground, usually in open grassland or sedge cover, away from trees and dense vegetation. The nest scrape, around 15 to 24 cm (5.9 to 9.4 in) wide, and between 3 and 12 cm (1.2 to 4.7 in) deep is then lined with grass and feathers.
Curlews typically lay between 2 and 5 eggs – with four the most common number. Eggs are a greenish-olive and are mottled with dark brown and grey markings. On average, eggs measure 67·6 by 47·9 mm (2.6 by 1.9 in). Females lay one clutch each season, between April and early July, and eggs hatch after 26 to 30 days. Incubation is either shared between the sexes or undertaken mainly by the female.
Many curlews return to the same breeding site year after year, and strong pair bonds are frequently maintained in subsequent breeding seasons.
The nest of a curlew with three eggs inside
Curlews are sociable and can be noisy, but are not especially aggressive outside of the breeding season. While nesting, they can become highly territorial and secretive about the site of their eggs and young.
Eurasian curlews are mostly migratory, but some resident birds remain in the UK all year round. Much of the population of curlews from northern Europe, in particular Scandinavia and the Baltic states migrate southwestwards, towards the Mediterranean coast of south-west Europe and north-west Africa.
Migration begins from June onwards, with non-breeding birds and adult females leaving first. The final migrants leave by early November, and spend until at least February on their wintering grounds.
Curlew searching for food, early in the morning
Both parts of the curlew’s scientific name, Numenius arquata, relate to the shape of its elongated curved bill. Numenius comes from two ancient Greek words ‘neos’ meaning ‘new’ and ‘mene’, referring to the shape of the bill being similar to the appearance of a crescent moon. ‘Arquata’ is the Latin word for an archer’s bow.
The English name is said to derive from the display call ‘cour-lee’ made by curlews. Some sources claim that the name’s origins lie in the Old French word ‘corliu’ meaning ‘messenger’, from the verb ‘courir’ meaning ‘to run’.
According to 2015 data, there are an estimated 212,000–292,000 breeding pairs of Eurasian curlews living across Europe. Of these, an estimated 66,000 pairs breed in the UK. This number temporarily swells to 140,000 individual birds during winter as visiting curlews arrive from Scandinavia and other breeding locations across Western Europe. The UK winter population represents around 30 percent of the total European population of curlews.
Eurasian curlew, Common curlew, European Curlew
Family:Sandpipers, snipes and phalaropes
50cm to 60cm
89cm to 106cm
410g to 1.36kg
The Eurasian woodcock spends days roosting in dense, damp woodland undergrowth, and evenings and nights foraging in open fields as well as woods for worms and beetles.
The UKs breeding population of Wood Sandpipers are limited to an area of swampy marshland in the Highlands of northern Scotland, although they are far more commonly sighted in passage during their spring and autumn migrations as they make brief stopovers in southern and eastern England.
A long-legged wader, closely related to the curlew, the Eurasian whimbrel, has small breeding populations established on the Scottish islands of Shetland and Orkney. Migrating whimbrels may be spotted along Britain’s coastlines as they undertake long-distance migration flights between Arctic tundra breeding grounds and wintering territories in Africa.
The Ruddy Turnstone is an attractive shorebird, frequently seen flipping stones in search of small creatures sheltering beneath. These long-distance migrants visit temperate and tropical coastlines across the globe but return to the Arctic each year to nest.
One of the smallest wading bird species to visit British shores, the Temminck’s stint is now classed as a ‘former breeder’ in the UK, with breeding pairs no longer regularly observed. Passage migrants may still be seen, particularly on the eastern coast in May.
Spotted redshanks have a distinctive black spotted summer plumage that UK residents are unlikely to see in birds on British shores, as the species is only a rare winter visitor or spotted in migration passage. Several hundred spotted redshanks make brief stopovers on British coastal wetlands each year, en-route to and from breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle.
The Snipe is a common but shy wader seen throughout the United Kingdom. These cryptic birds make a living by probing marshy ground for invertebrates in the mud below.
Sanderlings run tirelessly along sandy beaches, rushing down to feed as the waves recede and sprinting back, seemingly hoping to keep their feet dry. Their comical antics and non-descript looks belie an impressive avian that makes remarkable migrations between Arctic nesting grounds and overwintering grounds as distant as the southern tips of South America and South Africa.
A rare breeding wading bird in the UK, ruffs are among the most intriguing bird species on Earth, due to the diversity not just between males and females, but also between the three distinctly different types of males that occur.
Named for its red-orange legs, the Redshank is a common and noisy wader of the United Kingdom. These wary birds are present throughout the year, although they are most numerous in the winter non-breeding season.
Unlike many wading bird species, in red-necked phalaropes the traditional roles are reversed. The female is larger, brighter and leaves parental care of the young to the drabber, smaller male. Also, unusual for waders, red-necked phalaropes spend up to 9 months at sea once breeding in the upper northern hemisphere is complete.
A hardy wading bird that thrives in the bleak Arctic tundra landscapes of northeastern Canada, Greenland and Iceland, purple sandpipers arrive on wintering grounds along the northeastern coast of the United States and the UK each autumn, to forage for molluscs and crustaceans on rocky shores and coastal headlands.
Pectoral Sandpipers are mid-sized waders that breed on wet tundra landscapes across the northernmost extremes of North America and the Siberian Arctic. Their epic annual migration return trips of up to 30,000 km are one of the most lengthy of any bird species, similar to those undertaken by the Arctic tern.
One of the world’s smallest wading birds, little stints cover enormous distances on their annual migrations between breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle and winter territories in southern Africa and South Asia. A handful of individual birds spend winter in the UK, and records of vagrant birds reaching North America are occasionally reported.
Red knots, known simply as ‘knots’ in the UK are medium-sized shorebirds that undertake impressive annual migrations of up to 30,000 km (18,000 mi) each year between Arctic breeding grounds and southern coastal wintering habitats.
Highly camouflaged and elusive, the jack snipe is a small wading bird that spends winters on mudflats and freshwater wetlands across Britain. Smaller and less common than the UK’s other native snipe, the common snipe, jack snipes are harder to spot due to their tendency to crouch low and remain hidden among reeds.
The grey phalarope’s winter and summer plumage are so distinctly different that the species is known by an entirely different name in the US. In the UK, the bird’s name reflects its post-breeding plumage, which is dominated by light grey and white. However, in the US, it is known as the red phalarope, after the more vibrant orange-red plumage seen during the breeding season.
A medium wading bird, named after its brightly coloured legs, the greenshank breeds in northern Scotland, as well as further to the east across Scandinavia and Russia. In winter, an influx of greenshanks descends upon wetlands and marshes and along the coast of south-west England, Wales, Ireland and north-east Scotland. Tens of thousands of birds migrate significantly further afield, reaching the coasts of Australia, Indonesia and South Africa.
Green sandpipers are stocky shorebirds similar to the common sandpiper. They spend winters at inland freshwater wetlands in southern Europe and northern and central Africa after raising their young in swampy forests and wet woodland landscapes across northern Europe.
The Dunlin is a small wading bird from the sandpiper family Scolopacidae. Dunlins breed across North America and northern Europe, and Asia and are one of the most widely distributed wading birds, with ten subspecies.
Identified as being from a group of birds known as Waders, within North America they are generally referred to as Shorebirds. This monotypic species, a long distance migrant, is considered to have an Amber Conservation Status otherwise known as Near Threatened.
Belonging to a group of birds generally called waders or shorebirds, the common sandpiper prefers freshwater habitats as opposed to saltwater locations.
An impressive, proud looking wader with particularly fine summer plumage which migrates south from its northern breeding grounds from July to October, returning for the summer from late February through April.
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