The Eurasian Curlew, Numenius arquata, is a common enough site on Bute, recorded throughout the year in good numbers at various sites around our coastline.
This local abundance makes it difficult to believe that globally this is a species in decline to the extent that in 2008 the International Union for Conservation in Nature classed it as a near-threatened species.
The Curlew is a handsome bird that belongs to a group of birds called waders, which comprises more than 220 different species. Waders come in various shapes and sizes each designed to take advantage of a different food source in mud, sand or silt. With their large curved bills Curlews burrow down to a depth of several inches to locate crustaceans, molluscs and marine worms buried at a depth that is out of reach to birds with smaller bills.
They are generally found at or near the coast feeding on food items in the area uncovered by the ebbing tide. However, when displaced from the shoreline, by a rising tide or poor weather, they will happily feed in nearby farmland, having a liking for flooded fields or wetlands.
Male and female Curlews appear very similar with little seasonal variation in plumage, however the length of the bill varies considerably with male or young birds having much shorter bills than adult females. When walking over the hills at the north end of Bute their haunting call “cur-LEE cur-LEE cur-LEE”, a true sound of the countryside, is always a pleasure to hear.
The Birds of Bute (2010) lists Curlew as a common resident breeding species with numbers totalling up to 2000 birds on the island during winter. Large flocks numbering into the hundreds are regularly recorded at Ettrick and Kilchattan Bays or in the fields bordering our large inland freshwater lochs.
However, nationally the Curlew is in decline. In the 20 years from 1996 to 2016 estimates indicate that there has been a fall of over 50 per cent in the population in Scotland and England, a fall of 80 per cent in Wales and over 90 per cent in Ireland. This is more worrying when you realise that around 25 per cent of the global population is located in the British Isles and as a result, in 2015, Eurasian Curlew was placed on the UK’s red list of it’s most endangered species.
So next time you happen upon a flock of Curlew on one of our beaches, or hear that haunting call, take time to appreciate this unique bird and don’t take it for granted as the day may soon come when it is no longer one of or common resident species.