THE SECRET LIFE OF CURLEWS AT RAF HONINGTON

You may not realise it, but RAF Honington is home to a number of exciting bird species. Harry Ewing reports on his PhD research, studying our important population of Eurasian Curlews, a species of major conservation concern in the UK.

The Curlew is an iconic and widely celebrated wader species but one that is disappearing fast from our countryside. Since 1995, the UK has lost nearly half of its breeding population, a decline widely attributed to unsustainably high rates of nest and chick failure. The aim of my PhD is to identify actions to conserve breeding Curlew through conducting intensive field-based studies across Breckland.

Losing the Curlew as a breeding species in the UK would be tragic; they are easily the most charismatic species that I’ve had the privilege of studying. To start with, their song; a bubbling, haunting, melancholic sound that brings hope to a cold, misty, Breckland morning. Early in the season this can be closely followed by a courtship display; an endearing but embarrassingly uncoordinated dance, sparking the complete opposite set of emotions to the song. These displays are performed by the male and are rather reminiscent of dad-dancing; females are often far from impressed and shoo away the admirer. For such a placid bird, Curlews are also impressively resilient. Once nests are laid and chicks are hatched, Curlews switch to warrior-mode, aggressively dive-bombing encroaching buzzards and crows, and occasionally charging at livestock.

All of these behaviours are incredible to observe and are a great reward for long hours spent in the field. To fully understand how to conserve Curlew, I have to immerse myself in their lives during the spring and summer months, closely following breeding attempts from courtship all the way through to chick-rearing and fledging. This intensive monitoring will allow me to identify conditions under which Curlews breed successfully and areas in which Curlews may need a bit of help from conservationists.

RAF Honington hosts a very large and important population of breeding Curlews. At the peak of the breeding season in May, over 20 pairs of Curlews can be found nesting on the airfield. To put this into context, the only other Breckland breeding site with more than 20 pairs of Curlews is Stanta, which is nearly 25 times larger than RAF Honington. Amazingly, the Curlew population breeding on the airfield had gone largely undetected prior to my PhD, but it is now considered one of the most important Curlew hotspots in southern England.

Curlews probably like nesting on the airfield because the large, open, grassland areas provide the opportunity to quickly detect approaching threats. This means that they can mob and chase away predators such as Foxes and Crows, which like to eat their vulnerable eggs and chicks. Thanks to the more secure, fenced areas, like the ESA, as well as the sharp-eyed Tivoli maintenance team who are great at maintaining the vegetation structure that Curlews need, Curlews can breed quite successfully at RAF Honington. In fact, over the last two years, 13 Curlews have fledged from the airfield, more than all other Breckland breeding sites combined.

A lot more work is needed to identify actions to conserve breeding Curlews and this project is far from over but, with the ongoing support of everyone at RAF Honington, good progress is being made and things look positive for Curlews.

Harry Ewing is a PhD researcher at the University of East Anglia. He works in collaboration with the British Trust of Ornithology and is part-funded by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation. For more information about the project feel free to email Harry at: h.ewing@uea.ac.uk, follow him on Twitter @Ewing_birds,
or go and have a chat if you see him on the airfield.