Curlew at Rye Harbour

15 February 2021 | Posted in Barry Yates , Rye Harbour , Birds
Curlew at Rye Harbour

The sound of the Curlew is distinctive and reminds me of remote parts of Britain where I studied other wading birds and even ringed some Curlew chicks in Sutherland and Shetland. 

It is the largest of our waders or shorebirds with a male weighing in about 770g and a female at 1000g - she also has a longer beak. They can be seen all year round at Rye Harbour, but have never nested, we just occasionally hear their call from birds staying into May. The only nesting birds in Sussex were on Ashdown Forest from 1932-91 with a maximum of 6 pairs in 1968.

As non-breeding birds in Sussex they are common along the shore and occasionally inland along river valleys. In Rye Bay we have a large wintering population that used to number more than 600, but is now much lower, on 5th February we counted 362. This probably reflects the decline in breeding numbers across Europe – they are on the red list of endangered birds. This decline is all the more worrying because they can live a long time, typically 11 years, but the oldest known was 32 years and 7 months.

Curlew rye harbour graph Curlew - 10 day period mean peak counts at Rye Harbour 1991-2020

The first groups return at the end of June and numbers build through July. They come here to moult their feathers - this photo below, on 24th July shows the symmetrical wing moult has just started. Numbers then increase as central European birds escape freezing conditions.

Curlew moult 24 July 8094

Some of the local Curlew do feed on the shore or in the limited saltmarsh, but most feed on earthworms in the sheep grazed grasslands, especially at Pett Level. The attraction is our mild climate with few days when the ground is frozen (and the worms locked in).

They feed by day and can reach the worms deep down with their long down curved bill, but they seek a safe roost at night. Most choose to roost in the south part of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve and there are usually 2 roost sites - one in the new saltmarsh and the other larger one on the saline lagoons further west.

But where do these Curlew come from? One answer comes in the form of a colour ringed male, photographed by Alan Martin at Pett Level this week - 11th Feb 2021.

Curlew colour ringed

It was seen last year by Phil Jones, also at Pett Level on 19th January 2020 and its history is: 

22nd May 2011 - caught in breeding area in Haddorf, just west of Hamburg, Germany

12th August 2007 - ringed Shell Ness, Kent,

You can see that he is at least 14 years old, already older than a typical adult Curlew.

By now, in late February our roost numbers are declining as birds return to their territories across Europe. Let’s hope that these Curlew are successful in raising many chicks to rebuild the population.

The trouble is that when you read about Curlew they do not seem to have a rosy future -

The best we can do here is to maintain wet grassland with many earthworms and safe undisturbed roosting sites.

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