A Norfolk Curlew’s summer

This blog follows the fortunes of one Curlew (B/OW-OY) as he attempts to raise chicks in Norfolk, migrates to Portugal, diverts to avoid a forest fire and returns to his winter home in a Portuguese estuary. Using tagging data we know that he left his Norfolk breeding territory in England on 17 June 2022 and arrived at Montijo, in the Tagus Estuary of Portugal, on 16 July – but that’s only part of his story.

Curlew migration

B/OW-OY (named ‘Bowie’ in a BTO press release) may have been travelling between Norfolk and Portugal for a decade or more, flying backwards and forwards between the dry grassland of inland East Anglia and the coastal mud of the Tagus Estuary. We have new insights into his life because he was ringed and tagged on 2 April 2022, as part of a project to understand Curlew breeding success rates in East Anglia – about which more later!

Curlew migration is complex. The birds that we see in autumn and winter in the UK include some local birds but the majority will have crossed the North Sea, particularly from Finland. The map alongside is taken from the BTO website. As you can see, some British-bred Curlew migrate south for the winter. At the Europe-wide scale, the major axis of migration is also from northeast to southwest, as you can discover using the European African Bird Migration Atlas mapping tool. ‘Bowie’ may be feeding in Portugal alongside birds that have bred in Poland, Finland and France.

Breckland Curlews migrate in all directions in the autumn. At least three have been found wintering on the Norfolk coast, five colour-ringed birds have travelled to southwest England (Dorset, Devon and the Severn Estuary), another of the tagged birds has flown to Ireland and a colour-ringed bird has been seen in northern Spain.

Breckland Curlew

Harry Ewing is studying Curlew in Breckland – the tapestry of heath, grassland, forestry, arable farming and military bases in the dry, heart of East Anglia. His PhD at the University of East Anglia is being undertaken in partnership with BTO and with input from RSPB. Harry is working across a range of habitats that are used by nesting Curlew, from airfields to sugar beet fields. The breeding site of B/OW-OY is a grassland heath that is managed in ways that maintain habitats that are suitable for scarce plants, invertebrates and birds. Here, pairs of Curlew breed alongside Stone-curlews and Woodlarks.

Most of Harry’s Curlew struggle to fledge any chicks, as is the case in many places across Britain and Ireland, and it will be interesting to see the papers that come out of his PhD, in due course. Two previous WaderTales blogs describe the predation problems Curlews face in East Anglia (Curlews and foxes in East Anglia) and give information about conservation interventions that suit breeding waders (Grassland management for Stone-curlew).

Catching Curlew

During his PhD, Harry has found up to 70 Curlew nests in a single breeding season and followed their outcomes until the eggs or chicks were predated or through to fledging. Harry checks on his breeding Curlew on an almost daily basis but does not always see adults on territory. By catching birds at roost, at the start of spring, and deploying a small number of GPS tags, funded from the BTO Curlew Appeal and by Natural England, he hoped to learn more about how birds use surrounding habitats and to get more accurate information about the timing of breeding events. The extra data about migration that he gets from birds like B/OW-OY are a bonus.

Harry had been looking for opportunities to catch Curlew in the Brecks when they returned to the areas in the spring. A flock of roosting birds was spotted by local graziers on 31 March 2022 and, with the help of the Breckland Farmers Wildlife Network, Nigel Clark and the Wash Wader Research Group, a catch was made on the evening of 2 April. Eleven birds were caught, all of which were colour-ringed and eight of which were also fitted with GPS tags by Sam Franks of BTO (see picture).

A ‘miracle chick’

Harry spotted B/OW-OY on the day after capture, on a grass heath just 3.7 km away from the ringing site. As luck would have it, he was paired with B/OW-OL, a newly colour-ringed female. Harry could not download data from the tagged bird, due to a lack of signal coverage, but he saw OY and OL almost daily over the next two months. Information collected on OY’s tag and sent from Portugal in July filled in some of the gaps. OY fed mostly on cultivated plots (as described in Grassland management for Stone-curlew) but he also used nearby arable farmland, especially an asparagus field about 3 km from the heath, and made a brief trip to a local airfield during the pre-breeding period.

Both OY and OW were observed regularly and Harry found their nest and a completed clutch on 6 May. As can be seen in the photograph, it was in a very open site, on dry, grazed grass heathland. When Harry checked the nest on 25 May, three chicks had hatched and one was still hatching. A second check the next day, to confirm successful hatching of the final chick, revealed a sad tableau of overnight predation: one chick was dead, one was injured and two were missing. Injuries suggested a mustelid attack – probably a stoat (see photograph above). That was the end of the breeding attempt – or was it?

Another day later, on 27 May, Harry discovered a bird he named ‘miracle chick’; a one-day-old youngster that was feeding near the nest site, on its own, with no parents guarding it. OY and OL were still present on the heath but had joined a flock of failed breeders, presumably having assumed that their chicks had all perished. Two days later, ‘miracle chick’ had moved 100 metres and latched onto a family of two 25-day-old chicks, feeding with them and sharing the protection afforded by their parents. OY and OL were still in the post-breeding flock, presumably unaware that their breeding season had not been a total failure.

Curlews gather in small flocks when they lose their chicks or nests. For them the season is over.

As Harry continued his daily checks of broods around the Brecks, to try to understand more about the predation of chicks, he was able to establish that the first step-sibling of ‘miracle chick’ was predated on the night of 31 May/1 June and the second on the next night. Nocturnal predation of big chicks is probably by foxes. ‘Miracle chick’ continued to be defended by its step-parents until 16 June. On 17 June, Harry found an adult female with a broken wing and the chick was never seen again. Perhaps she was the step-mum and the injury was sustained in unsuccessful defence of ‘miracle chick’. ,We shall never know. By this time, OL and OY appeared to have left the heath; the last sighting of the female was on 10 June and the tagged male was not spotted after 16 June.

Heading south

Thanks to the information that was transmitted from Portugal, we know that B/OW-OY (Bowie) left Breckland at 21.30 (UTC) on 17 June, arriving on the Essex coast at Brightlingsea just 80 minutes (and about 50 miles) later. He spent the next four weeks feeding around the coast of Mersea Island, leaving at 20.00 on 14 July. There was a nine-hour lay-over in Spain on 15 July, before another evening departure (20.40). The last part of the journey is interesting; it included what looks like a diversion around the forest fires that were burning in the Ourém region in Portugal at that time (see map).

It is fascinating to think about how this one Curlew from Norfolk might have travelled to Portugal. Did it fly to the coast alone? Did it meet up with other birds that were heading south from Essex and fly in a flock? Did it ‘change flocks’ in Spain, as we would planes at an airport? This blog, based on a recent French paper, gives a feeling of what it is like to be a migrating Curlew: The flock now departing.

Threatened winter home

Bowie arrived on the Tagus Estuary at 09.30 on 16 July and he may well stay here until next February or even March. The Montijo peninsula, which appears to be his winter home, is one of the most important parts of the Tagus Estuary for Curlew. They feed in the mud and roost on salting islands, following the rhythm of the tides. This estuary is right next to Montijo Air Force Base.

The saltmarsh at Montijo on 18 July 2022. Josh Nightingale counted 22 Curlew.

Montijo Curlew are accustomed to the relatively infrequent take-offs and landings by military aircraft, in the same way that Curlew on RAF bases in East Anglia are happy to breed on the grassland alongside runways. All this will change, however, if the plan to expand the site, lengthen the runways and introduce all-day flights of passenger aircraft goes ahead (planned to operate at 5 minute intervals). Add on control measures to reduce the potential of bird-strikes to aircraft and Montijo and the Tagus as a whole will become much less attractive to hundreds of thousands of waterbirds. As you can read in Tagus Estuary: for birds or planes, we need to fight very hard to stop this new airport which is on a specially protected Ramsar site. If this jewel on the East Atlantic Flyway can be degraded then what is there to stop similar developments elsewhere?

One tagged bird

It looks as if B/OW-OY skirted around forest fires in the Ourém region.

In the spring, B/OW-OY will return to his Breckland breeding site, hopefully to meet up with B/OW-OL and to have another go at raising chicks. For him nothing has changed – he’s doing the same again for another year. The only difference is that he is tagged now, and that provides us with insights into his world and the challenges that he and other migratory waders face. Imagine what it will be like if, next year or in the near future, he arrives back in Montijo and finds bulldozers and freshly-poured concrete, instead of mud and saltmarsh. With a new airport to contend with and yet more anthropogenic change to his world, life does not look as if it will get easier.


WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton (@GrahamFAppleton) to celebrate waders and wader research. Many of the articles are based on published papers, with the aim of making shorebird science available to a broader audience.

6 thoughts on “A Norfolk Curlew’s summer

  1. Surely, as a member of the EU (Portugal), a decision to build an airport on a RAMSAR site/Special Protection Area (“SPA” – EU Habitats Regulations) can be challenged – contact the EU Commission.
    The comment by David Perry “We can build them (airports) almost anywhere—” is also relevant i.e. under EU legislation you must consider other options — like not building it on an SPA.
    Has the site been designated an SPA and if not then surely that could be challenged as a failure to implement the EU Directive (Habitats Directive).
    Challenging [open letter to the EU Commission asking them to report Portugal to the European Court of Justice] the propose airport might force a reality check – fancy millions of euros in fines —- ongoing until you rectify the damage — ongoing legal action by the EU Commission — if not then don’t build the airport there!

    Liked by 1 person

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