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NATURE A twilight flight of curlew calls

Outdoor Living
A twilight flight of curlew calls


Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley


A voice came from behind me. ‘They’ll be passing over soon – if it’s the curlews that you’re watching for.’ He joined me, leaning at the gate, an elderly, weather-beaten man with outsized hands and an ancient cap pulled low over his eyes.
‘Some call them curloos,’ he said, placing a heavy accent on the second syllable. He was silent then, as if the name should mean something. It didn’t, but I was reminded of the account in Buckland’s ‘Curiosities of Natural History’: “I never thinks any good of them,” said old Smith. “There’s always an accident when they comes. They come over our heads all of a sudden, singing ‘ewe, ewe’, and the men in the boat wanted to go back. It came on to rain and blow soon afterwards, and was an awful night, sir; and sure enough before morning a boat was upset and seven poor fellows drowned.”
We stood in silence to look over the lake, with the ruined church casting its long shadow down towards the water. From this gentle hill Lough Carra almost always appears blue, although the exact shade varies according to the quarter of the wind. In spring a soft breeze from the south colours it turquoise; a weaker sun in winter turns it grey. It is almost always somewhere in between.
It is hard to imagine that gentle Carra should ever throw up a tempest, yet she can, and does from time to time. As on any of the larger lakes, the wind can race down from the hills at an alarming pace to sweep the quiet water into great heaps of waves, each of which alone might swamp an angler’s boat.
It was one summer’s day that Lough Mask threatened to wreck us on pinnacles of rock that appeared like monstrous teeth in deep troughs between towering walls of water, while a villainous wind drove us back toward the shore. Late one evening Carra did her best to upset us in similar manner. Dense cloud had fallen fast to obliterate the landscape, leaving us in sudden darkness. A gale sprang up, blowing first from one way and moments later from another, so that both my angling companion and myself were thoroughly disorientated.
At first we turned the boat to face the waves, which fell heavily upon the bow and filled the air with blinding spray. We then went with the wind but found it and the waves at cross purposes, so that we rolled and wallowed uncontrollably. Somehow we ended up close to home and followed the shoreline back to our mooring point, safe and better educated.
Where would the curlews go on a night such as that? Like many wild things they appear to have some foreknowledge of imminent weather conditions. So they habitually roost low on the eastern shore unless they feel somehow uncomfortable, in which case they go elsewhere. It is a fact that, on summer nights, we like to see them in their normal abode, and even watch out for them there; they provide reassurance that the night will be calm, calm enough to allow us remain afloat beyond dusk and into the night.
This night I stayed and waited well into dusk, hoping the curlews would show up. They did. I counted nine in one small flock and heard calls from others further down the lake, each sound an echo of its predecessor, the whole a chorus as long and as lovely as the day.
Twelve or 15 birds, then. Back in 1929 renowned ornithologist Robert F Ruttledge recorded ‘enormous flocks’ of autumn and winter curlew and reported those that stayed for the summer as ‘plentiful breeders’.
How things have changed. Now, the excellent Lough Carra website (loughcarra.org) tells us, there are very few, if any, curlew breeding here nowadays, and suggests that ‘In particular, silage cutting probably reduces breeding success and slurry spreading probably reduces food supply (earthworms) in some areas.’
We did see a pair of adult curlew on rough pasture (the type of habitat they like to nest in) a year ago. We shall look for them again, with hope.
I want them there when I am old.