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Controversial Curlew

Slender hopes raised for Europe`s rarest bird

Birdwatchers from across the continent have been flocking to the east coast of England to look for Europe`s rarest bird. A possible Slender-billed Curlew Numenius tenuirostris has taken up residence at the RSPB`s Minsmere Reserve on the Suffolk coast. BirdLife estimates the total world population of the species to now be less than 50 birds. However, so little is known about this critically endangered species that the bird`s identification is refuted by some observers. One way of solving the mystery will be to analyse the bird`s DNA. To this effect, birdwatchers are now training their telescopes on potential curlew droppings ? so that a sample can be gathered and taken away to a laboratory. The bird is also being carefully watched in case it drops any feathers while preening.

Dr Debbie Pain, in charge of the RSPB`s international research, said: Any feathers grown on the breeding grounds will lock away the area`s unique signature of elemental isotope ratios. Dr Pain added: This technique should allow us to narrow the potential search from an area several times larger than the UK to a size that researchers can more easily cover on foot.As well as being Europe`s rarest bird, the Slender-billed Curlew is also probably its most enigmatic. The last nest to be found was in Siberia in 1924. The species is thought to migrate through central and eastern Europe, before spending the winter in north Africa. Flocks of over 100 birds were recorded from Morocco as late as the 1970s, however numbers then dropped off dramatically. The last regular wintering site in Morocco was Merja Zerga, a tidal lagoon located 70 km north of Kenitra on the Atlantic coast. During the 1990s just 1-3 birds returned each winter until 1995, when a single bird was present for the final time. The last confirmed sighting of a Slender-billed Curlew anywhere in the world was of four birds in Greece in 1999.As a result, scientists at the RSPB have turned their attention to a new method of identifying the species` breeding grounds. Researchers will analyse the atomic make-up of feathers from museum specimens ? collected in the nineteenth century when the Slender-billed Curlew was more common ? in the hope of detecting clues to narrow down the breeding territory. Although the species` likely breeding range is remote and far away from people, it is wrong to assume it is safe for the birds. Regarded as very common in the 19th century, Slender-billed Curlews declined dramatically during the 20th century, with hunting and loss of wetland habitat thought to be major factors.Dr Mike Rands, Director and Chief Executive of BirdLife International commented: If the Minsmere bird proves to be a Slender-billed Curlew it will be fantastic news ? the fact it is a young bird means the species has bred somewhere in the world this year. However, we know so little about the species that it is hard to know which of the possible conservation actions are most urgently needed to save it. The only certainty is that a massive effort is required to find and protect key sites along the species` flyways in order to stop the Slender-billed Curlew from becoming the first bird extinction in Europe since the Great Auk.

4th July 2014