Will head-starting work for Curlew?

83 captive-reared Curlew were released successfully in 2019, over 130 in 2021 and a similar number in 2022 but this does not mean that head-starting is a solution to England’s Curlew problems. We don’t yet know the proportion of youngsters that survive the difficult ‘teenage years’, how many will find suitable breeding habitat and whether these birds can reliably raise chicks of their own. What have birds such as 7K, pictured here, revealed and what might happen next?

Exciting news

There has been some great TV and press coverage of head-started Curlew this summer (2022), with films of captive-reared birds being released from pens and flying for the first time. But what does the future hold for naïve birds that take to the air in Shropshire & Powys, the Severn & Avon Valleys of western England, Cornwall, Sussex and Norfolk? The first signs are good, as illustrated below in maps published by the BTO for the birds that they are tracking in Norfolk.

Satellite-tagged birds released at Ken Hill (Black stars – close to the Norfolk coast) can be seen flipping backwards and forwards between the mudflats and their release site, before beginning to explore more of the Wash estuary.

Birds released further inland, on The Sandringham Estate (White stars), started foraging in grassland areas and it took a while until any of these birds discover the coast. One bird “7Y” moved onto a little-used airfield (below), where it was seen with a flock of adults. It appears to have adopted a mudflat/grassland tidal routine, involving ‘commutes’ of ten miles each way, possibly having been guided by the adults (top row, third from the left).

One of the Sandingrham youngsters joined up with a flock of adults on an airfield five miles from the release site

It is easy to get ‘wowed’ by the TV reports and the individual stories of tracked birds but these are early days for Curlew head-starting. There’s a lot still to learn!

Why head-start Curlew chicks?

This Curlew is nearly ready to fledge

The Eurasian Curlew is in trouble, as you can read in the WaderTales blog “Is the Curlew really near-threatened?”. Annual survival rates of adults are high but productivity is low, with an estimate of 10,000 too few youngsters being fledged each year, to maintain population levels in the UK. The Irish Curlew population has crashed, providing dire warnings of what may happen soon in Wales, where there has been a decline of 73% since 1995 (Breeding Bird Survey). In southern England, most of the losses happened before 1995 and only a few populations remain, hanging on in areas such as Breckland in East Anglia.

Lessons from Black-tailed Godwits

We know that head-starting works well for limosa Black-tailed Godwits breeding in East Anglia but there was no guarantee that this would be the case when the WaderTales blog Special Black-tailed Godwits was published in 2017, to coincide with the departure of captive-reared birds from their WWT Welney release site. When the first birds not only returned in 2018 but actually raised their first chicks (see Head-starting Success), the approach looked to be successful. Over the following years, with more releases, the godwit population in the Ouse and Nene Washes has increased significantly. This temporary relief package for a beleaguered population has worked well, providing time to try to improve breeding conditions in the wild, so that Black-tailed Godwits can look after themselves. Head-starting is an intervention of last resort and cannot be a long-term solution to the problems faced by the species.

Young Curlew is now identified as 2X

It is possible to support local populations of scarce birds, such as Bitterns and Little Terns, with interventions such as increasing areas of suitable habitat and protecting nest sites, but doing the same for Curlew will be more of a problem. Here, the challenge is to halt a decline of a species that breeds across wide areas of the UK, mostly on farmed land that is not being managed for conservation. Intensive, local action is not going to be enough. This is going to need teamwork between landowners, conservation organisations and volunteers – acting at a scale that has not been tried previously. Perhaps head-starting will help?

A pragmatic plan

The most recent UK population assessment of Curlew, in British Birds, suggested that there were 58,500 breeding pairs in 2016. Numbers have almost certainly dropped since then but the species is nowhere near as threatened as England’s breeding Black-tailed Godwits. The biggest Curlew head-starting programme, led and funded by Natural England, was a response to an opportunity to use unwanted Curlew eggs – not a ‘last-chance’ solution, as it had been for Black-tailed Godwits. Each year, Curlew eggs were being collected on RAF airfields, under licence, to deter adults and reduce airstrike risk. Thanks in no small part to Natural England’s Graham Irving, many of these eggs are now being head-started, instead of destroyed.

What happens to head-started birds?

Curlew eggs in an incubator

The Natural England project builds upon the experiences of the Curlew Country team, working in the Shropshire hills and Powys borders. They released 6 head-started Curlew in 2017, 21 in 2018, 33 in 2019 and 34 in 2021. Raising extra chicks is part of an initiative that involves a broad range of stakeholders. See their website for more information.

The first stage of the head-starting process works well. Aviculturalists can rear and release chicks, with very high rates of success. They are learning more and more about the best diets, appropriate husbandry and the release process. Individual chicks wear small colour-rings, so that progress can be monitored daily, and they receive leg-flags and get weighed and measured before release. For instance, the young Curlew 7K featured above is a GPS tagged male that weighed in at a respectable 550 grammes when it was transferred to its release site on The Sandringham Estate, on 14 July 2022. By the end of August, it had moved to the Wash Estuary, as you can see in the figure above (top left map).

Before transfer to The Sandringham Estate release site, a young Curlew is checked over by a vet

From the start, the Natural England project has been built on partnerships. In the first year (2019), eggs were hatched and chicks were reared at WWT Slimbridge. Fifty young Curlew were released near-by and the first of these birds (wearing ring number 23) was found nesting near Gloucester in 2021, raising one chick of his own. In 2022, three years after release, five of the head-started Curlew were on breeding sites in the Severn and Avon area and one bird had moved to the Thames Vale. Male “23” shows that head-starting can add more Curlews to the breeding population but is he exceptional? What proportion of released birds make it this far and go on to raise chicks? The video by Kane Brides in this WWT blog tells the West Country story so far.

After a Covid-caused hiatus in 2020, the head-starting project expanded in 2021, with birds reared at both WWT Slimbridge in Gloucestershire and Pensthorpe in Norfolk. Richard Saunders, the Senior Ornithologist for Natural England, recognised the importance of learning what happens to newly-released fledglings and of monitoring potential recruitment. Working with Sam Franks of BTO and with lots of support from others, the Pensthorpe-reared Curlews are starting to reveal some of their secrets.

Where will the Pensthorpe birds set up home?

Most waders are philopatric; when they look for breeding sites, they tend to return to places close to the places in which they were raised. The release sites in North Norfolk were chosen not only because they provided suitable conditions for growing teenage waders, with low predator numbers and adults feeding nearby, but also because they are relatively close to current breeding sites, such as Roydon Common and the heaths of Breckland (see Curlews and foxes in East Anglia). There are also airfields, of course, and it will be unfortunate if birds choose these sites, given that eggs were removed to try to reduce bird-strike risk.

Radio tag (left) will drop off when juvenile feathers are replaced. Satellite tag is mounted on a temporary harness and worn like a rucsac.

All of the chicks are colour-ringed, some of them are radio-tagged and others are GPS-tagged, prior to release. By following tagged birds, as they explore the area around the release sites, the project aims to understand more about habitat use and to see if these naïve birds seem unduly prone to predation, given that they have not been trained to look out for danger by watchful parents. GPS tagging helps to paint the bigger picture; would birds move to the mudflats of the Wash and spend the whole winter in Norfolk or would some move on, to southern England, Ireland or France, for instance? These data will hopefully be augmented by reports of colour-ringed birds that do not carry tags.

2C takes to the air after release at Ken Hill

The first results have been encouraging. For example, a GPS tagged female from the first cohort released in Norfolk in 2021, wearing flag 0E, has followed the ‘stay local’ option. She spent the winter on the saltmarshes of RSPB Frampton, on the Wash in Lincolnshire, and has largely stayed on the south shore of the Wash through her first summer, showing no evidence of visiting any type of breeding habitat yet. A male Curlew wearing flag 4P has been more adventurous, spending the winter on the Exe Estuary in Devon, a site used by some adult Curlews that breed in Eastern England.

The amazing left-hand map below shows the route taken by ‘6Y’, one of the first batch of 2022 birds to be released on The Sandringham Estate. The story of this bird is told by the BTO’s Dr Sam Franks:

“The first of this year’s birds to migrate away from Norfolk departed at sunset last Wednesday & arrived on a Staffordshire field at sunrise on Thursday. It then flew towards Ireland & made an anxiety-inducing trip out into the Atlantic before returning to dry land.”

The right-hand map shows an overnight flight by ‘9L’, one of the last birds to be released from Ken Hill. It set off on the evening of 16th September, flew southwest overnight and headed south when it ran out of land. It landed in France at 01.30 on 17th.

Data generated by colour-ring sightings will be analysed to check whether annual survival of youngsters in their first couple of years are consistent with figures for wild-reared chicks. This follow-up work is really important – the head-starting operation may seem to be successful but if few chicks survive long enough to breed then alternative approaches may be needed. Sightings of colour-ringed birds provide important information to add to data collected from tagged birds, which means that there is a vital role to be played by birdwatchers.

Around England

People care deeply about Curlew, as Mary Colwell explored in a recent book, reviewed in the WaderTales blog Curlew Moon, so it is not surprising that landowners feel inspired to help the species, by releasing birds on their own land. An attempt is being made to boost a tiny population on Duchy of Cornwall land on Dartmoor, using eggs from East Anglian airfields that were hatched at Slimbridge, and a licence has been granted to take eggs from a site in Northern England to be reared in Sussex, on an estate that appears suitable but where Curlew do not currently breed.

Release sites for these translocated birds do not hold many (or even any) Curlew so it will be interesting to learn whether the behaviour patterns of these fledglings are different to those of birds released in Norfolk and in the Severn and Avon Valleys of western England. All birds are being ringed, by WWT, GWCT and BTO ringers, with every report of a marked bird adding to our understanding of the success of the various projects. In each case, hopefully there will be enough money to deploy dedicated fieldworkers to monitor what happens to the released birds during the crucial first few weeks of independence, so that fledging rates can be accurately assessed, and to monitor return rates in subsequent breeding seasons. For slow-maturing birds, this follow-up work will involve a five-year commitment.

Maximising effectiveness

The work being funded by Natural England in East Anglia is expensive. It will be judged as successful if released birds augment local populations, whether these be in East Anglia (as hoped) or in another part of lowland England. If birds choose to breed in the North of England, where numbers are still high, or even overseas, then that may make it difficult to justify the expense of further rearing and monitoring work.

There is a concern that head-starting will be seen as a solution to the problems being faced by Curlew. It isn’t! The estimated shortfall in fledged chicks is 10,000 birds per year, across the whole of the UK, and head-starting will never make a big impact on that number. It may be a way to boost numbers in lowland areas, from which the species would otherwise be lost, but only if the conditions for successful breeding can be created and maintained. This means tackling the thorny problems of habitat degradation and predator numbers. Head-starting may seem like a dynamic intervention but if birds are released into areas where breeding success is too low then it’s not going to produce a sustainable solution to the problems being faced by England’s Curlew.

Photos of ringed birds are particularly appreciated

The Norfolk head-starting project would appear to tick all the right boxes – release sites with low predator numbers, right next to an estuary with lots of Curlew and with successful breeding sites near-by. Head-started birds soon start to explore the mixture of arable and tidal resources available to them and it looks as if early-years survival rates might be as high as expected of wild-reared birds. Despite all these positive signs, it will be a couple of years until this year’s young Curlew start breeding – somewhere – and that will be the crucial test of head-starting. Meanwhile, it is hoped that birdwatchers will look out for colour-ringed birds, so that survival rates can continue to be monitored. Every Curlew counts!

Norfolk-ringed head-started Curlew wear yellow flags, each with number & letter, immediately above an orange ring. Please report sightings of colour-ringed head-started Curlew using THIS LINK.


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.

When mates behave differently

Iceland’s 40,000 Oystercatchers are an interesting mix of resident birds and migrants, providing an ideal system in which to study the costs and benefits of the two options, and to try to work out what influences whether an individual becomes a ‘resident’ or a ‘migrant’. I’ve added the inverted commas because many residents migrate within Iceland in spring and autumn; it’s just that they don’t undertake long-distance flights across the Atlantic.

In their paper in Ecology & Evolution, Verónica Méndez and colleagues from the South Iceland Research Centre (University of Iceland), the University of Aveiro (Portugal) and the University of East Anglia (UK) investigate the timing and success of breeding attempts by resident, migratory and mixed (resident/migratory) pairs of Icelandic Oystercatchers.

Iceland’s Oystercatchers

As outlined in Mission Impossible: counting Iceland’s wintering Oystercatchers, about 30% of Icelandic Oystercatchers never leave the country, coping with cold temperatures, short December and January days and a restricted diet. In the winter months they can be found in the tidal zone of a few estuaries, mostly in the warmer west.

The majority of Iceland’s Oystercatchers fly 1000 km or more across the Atlantic, to Ireland, the UK and the coastal fringe of western Europe. Here, many colour-ringed birds have been spotted by birdwatchers, who play a vital part in migration studies. The blog Which Icelandic Oystercatchers cross the Atlantic? revealed that males and females were equally likely to migrate, while there appeared to be no assortative mating in spring (residents don’t preferentially choose resident partners, for instance).

It would be easy to envisage circumstances in which resident birds might be at an advantage, at the start of the spring breeding season, having not had to cross the Atlantic and thus being ready if an early nesting opportunity opens up. On the other hand, in a cold spring or after a particularly harsh winter, perhaps they could be in poorer condition than newly arrived migrants, and this may potentially delay breeding. What actually happens?

Fieldwork

Both resident and migrant Oystercatchers breed throughout lowland Iceland. Within breeding pairs, it is estimated that about 20% of pairs are resident, 46% are migrant and 34% are mixed. These are long-lived birds that generally maintain the same partners between years, despite the fact that individual males and females may spend seven months of the year up to 3000 km apart. Parents tend to be equally involved in incubation duties, territorial defence and chick rearing, although males tend to remain with their youngsters longer than do females.

Between 2015 and 2018, Verónica Méndez and her colleagues monitored the breeding attempts of Oystercatchers in southern Iceland, continuing a study of marked individuals that started in 2013. Adults were caught on the nest and sexed by later analysis of feather samples. With the help of a network of volunteer observers, the winter locations of 186 (out of 537) marked birds had been established when the paper was first written. Using these known outcomes and with additional information from stable isotope analysis, it was possible to assign the remaining 351 birds as ‘residents’ or ‘migrants’. Amazingly, 73 of these 351 birds have been seen since the isotope data were analysed and all of the assumptions on winter locations were found to have been correct.

Early nesting attempts may be hampered by spring snowfall

The first migrant Oystercatchers arrive in Iceland in February but no nesting has been recorded before mid-April. Searches for colour-ringed birds and nests were conducted every 2-3 days and then nests were followed through to hatching or failure. Second (and third) nesting attempts were also monitored. Oystercatchers remain in the vicinity of the nest after hatching their chicks and then feed them throughout the growing period. Chicks were metal-ringed just after hatching and individually marked with colour-rings when around two weeks old. Families were monitored every 3-4 days until all chicks were fledged or lost, allowing productivity (number of chicks fledged per pair) and fledging success (number of chicks fledged in nests where at least one egg hatched) to be recorded.

Who breeds when?

Verónica and her colleagues were able to estimate laying dates for 138 pairs with known migratory behaviour (56 migrant, 50 mixed and 32 resident pairs) in one or more seasons during 2015-2018, providing a total of 228 observations.

The top graph shows that, on average, 2015 was a much later breeding year than the other three. This was a colder spring; the sort of colder conditions that an older Oystercatcher may well have encountered frequently in its youth! (The longevity record for BTO-ringed Oystercatcher is 41 years – see Waders are long-lived birds – and the trend for there to be more frequent warmer springs is discussed in this Black-tailed Godwit blog).

The lower graph shows a breakdown of the data into the three categories – Resident (black dots), Mixed (grey) and Migrant (white). There is no difference between the egg-laying dates for residents across the four years. However, in the 2015 breeding season, in cases where either member of the pair is a migrant, there was an average nesting delay of over a week. An analysis in the paper shows that it does not matter which member of a mixed pair was the migrant, the delay in 2015 was the same.

Reproductive performance

Unusually amongst waders, adult Oystercatchers feed their chicks

As expected, Oystercatcher pairs that made earlier nesting attempts were more likely to lay a replacement clutch after nest loss, had higher productivity and higher fledging success. This is in line with the modelling paper described in Time to nest again. Early-nesters tended to have bigger clutches too. Any differences between the performance of residents, mixed pairs and migrants could be accounted for just by the timing of nest initiation.

In the papers’ Discussion, the authors suggest that, in the three warmer years, earlier nesting of pairs that included at least one migrant was sufficient to slightly enhance nest success but not overall productivity, above that achieved by pairs with residents. The migratory behaviour of the male within a pair appeared to have a stronger effect on fledging success than the migratory behaviour of the female, suggesting that males may play a more important role than females at the chick stage. This is interesting in the context of previously-published research by Verónica and her colleagues, as described in The Dad Effect blog.

What does this all mean?

In other studies, described in the Discussion, residents in systems where some individuals migrate have been found to have advantages over migrants, because they can get on with breeding earlier. This was not the case for Icelandic Oystercatchers, potentially because migrants can arrive in good condition in all but the coldest of years.

Hatching brood of three

In the cold year of 2015, Oystercatcher pairs nested an average of between a week and 12 days later than in other years. This delayed nesting occurred in migrant and mixed pairs but not in resident pairs, suggesting that the effect of the severe weather may have been greater on migrants than residents. Cold spring conditions in Iceland tend to be part of a wider pattern of cold weather across northwest Europe. The authors suggest that wintering conditions might influence the body condition required to reproduce and that these conditions may be more variable for migrants.

Only one cold year occurred during this study, so the authors don’t know whether pairs with migrants consistently breed later in colder years. Given that cold springs are increasingly rare in Iceland, 2015 may turn out to have been one of the few remaining opportunities to reveal the dynamic nature of links between weather, migratory behaviour and breeding phenology at these latitudes.

One potential explanation of the difference in the timing of nesting is the effect of habitat. The Icelandic team has found that there is a strong tendency for migrants to breed inland, whereas residents tend to breed along the coast. During the cold spring of 2015, inland habitats were not available as early as in the following years (everything was frozen), mostly delaying the breeding attempts of migrant and mixed pairs, rather than residents pairs.

Long-term studies

Verónica Méndez with one of the marked birds

The take-home message of the paper by Verónica Méndez and her colleagues is that it pays to nest early, which is not unexpected. Perhaps it is surprising that, in the cold spring of 2015, mixed pairs still bred at the same time as pairs of migrants, suggesting that residents waited for their migrant partners. Perhaps, the benefits of nesting with the same partner are very strong, or finding an alternative mate is difficult or both?

The study suggests that the links between individual migratory behaviour and reproductive success can vary over time and, to a much lesser extent, with mate migratory behaviour. Understanding these effects of pair phenology on breeding success may help researchers to understand the potential impacts of changing environmental conditions on migratory species. Such variation is very difficult to capture unless long-term funding is available. Four years may seem like a long time to observe the same Oystercatchers but, for birds that may easily live twenty years, this is nothing!

The full paper can be found here:

Effects of pair migratory behaviour on breeding phenology and success in a partially migratory shorebird population. Méndez V., Alves J.A., Gill, J.A., Þórisson, B., Carneiro, C., Pálsdóttir, A.E., Vignisson, S.R. and Gunnarsson, T.G. Ecology & Evolution


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.