Two Curlews fitted with GPS tags as part of a project to help boost numbers of the species  in the East of England, are keeping scientists up to date with their movements using the mobile phone network.

Curlew being fitted with GPS tag, by BTO

Throughout July & August, over 80 young Eurasian Curlew have been released at Sandringham and Wild Ken Hill as part of a Natural England project to boost Curlew numbers in the East of England. All of the birds have been fitted with uniquely coded coloured leg rings to be able to identify them if they are seen later on. A sample have also been fitted with radio and GPS tags to be able to keep tabs on them following their release by monitoring their movements and behaviour. For the two Curlew fitted with GPS tags, the results are proving to be very interesting, allowing scientists to monitor the birds’ activities in ‘real time’ when the tags download daily locations over the mobile phone network.

After a few days, Curlew ‘0E’ began exploring its surroundings, checking out the fields adjacent to the release site before moving a little further afield and onto the Wash, only for short periods initially. Now, it is behaving just like the non-breeding Curlew that visit the Wash in large numbers over the autumn and winter, using the estuary around the mouth of the Ouse and the Nene rivers.

Curlew ‘3A’ has been less adventurous, mainly staying around the release site, although it has recently begun to explore the Snettisham Coastal Park, moving north and south along the outer sea wall.

Dr Sam Franks, Senior Research Ecologist at the British Trust for Ornithology, said, “These tags have revealed for the first time how young headstarted Curlew learn about the landscape into which they’ve been released. It has been fascinating to observe the different behaviour between individuals. Just like people with different personalities, some Curlew are more adventurous and exploratory, while others are more risk averse, avoiding novel conditions and sticking with what they know.”

Chrissie Kelley, Head of Species Management at Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, said “It is fantastic to see the curlews, reared at Pensthorpe, released. Being able to follow  movements of the tagged birds and where they are naturally exploring has been interesting and we look forward to seeing their progress”. 

Dominic Buscall, Project Manager at Wild Ken Hill, said, “It will be fascinating for project partners like ourselves to learn more about the movement, behaviours, and survival rates of these headstarted Curlew, making a great scientific contribution to our understanding of the bird and its conservation”.

The Defence Infrastructure Organisation, said, “We are proud to be involved in such an innovative project. Not only does the headstarting boost curlew numbers while increasing flight safety, but it is also provides valuable information that will assist conservation efforts for this iconic species.”

Dave Slater, Director for Wildlife Licensing and Enforcement Cases at Natural England, said, “Recovering declining curlew numbers is a priority for us and we are working hard to help boost their numbers. This tracking data provides an excellent insight into the behaviour of birds released by this landmark project. This early data shows that they are acting like their wild counterparts in their movements and mixing with other wild curlew, which is exactly what we wanted to see.

He added, “I’m looking forward to seeing further updates as time goes on so we can build on this success and further enhance the chances of a sustained recovery of these wonderful birds.”

The Curlew is Europe’s largest wading bird and is now red-listed, meaning it is of the highest conservation priority, needing urgent action. The UK is home to roughly a quarter of the global breeding population of Curlew – some 58,500 pairs – but the species has suffered very significant declines since the 1970s due to loss of habitat and predation, with lowland England experiencing some of the most severe declines.

The partnership project for the East of England, with the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, the Royal Air Force, Natural England and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, collected 147 eggs from eight military and civilian airfields, where they presented a serious risk to air safety. 106 were transported to a new purpose built rearing facility at Pensthorpe Conservation Trust (PCT) in Norfolk, with 41 taken by the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) for a project in Dartmoor.

Curlew OE movements

Curlew 3A movements