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Curlew’s sweet crystalline cry

Living

WING AND A PRAYER Mayo is now one of the few places in Ireland where people can still enjoy the sights and sounds of breeding curlew.

Public encouraged to report bird calls and sightings

Ciara Moynihan

If there’s one thing we have all come to appreciate in the long days of lockdown, it’s birdsong. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the twitterings of one garden bird from the next, or the cry of one type of gull from another. One of our birds stands apart in this regard, however.
The curlew is one of the most evocative birds of rural Ireland. Its long, downward-curved bill, elegant neck, large greyish-brown mottled body and long legs are perfectly engineered for the task of wading through estuaries and damp land, searching for the invertebrates living in the earth. Its haunting and evocative call – the unmistakable ascending ‘cur...lee, cur...lee’ whistle – is as much part of the northwest as windswept blackthorn and wet bogland.
Described by Yeats as ‘a sweet crystalline cry’, the curlew cry is deeply embedded in our folklore. Referred to as ‘the storm bird’, their calls were believed to signal rain. In a recent article in ‘Irish Wildlife’, Michelle Carey describes an old tale in which a curlew saved Saint Patrick from drowning when he fell asleep beside a stream, crying loudly to wake the weary holy man. The saint thanked the curlew by ensuring that his nest will never be found.
Sadly, these elegant birds have suffered widespread declines across their European range, and nowhere has this been more severe than in Ireland. The native breeding curlew population is in free-fall, with 96 percent of the Irish breeding population lost since the 1970s. A national survey carried out between 2015 and 2017 found that only 138 pairs remain in the Republic of Ireland, with an estimated 250 additional pairs in Northern Ireland.
Inappropriate forestry planting, continuous peat extraction and intensified farming have all led to the demise of the curlew. The situation has gotten so bad, that April 21 has been designated annual World Curlew Day to raise awareness of the bird’s extreme vulnerability. It is a grass-roots initiative, supported by major environmental organisations around the world, to raise awareness of the plight of curlews and to encourage activities to help them.
Here in Ireland, the Curlew Conservation Programme was established in 2017 by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, in a bid to reverse the decline here. There are nine core breeding areas in the country, and the Curlew Conservation Programme works with landowners and communities to try and save the last remaining curlews.
One of the areas included in the programme is East Mayo and North Roscommon, where the Curlew Action Team are currently working to identify breeding pairs within the region. The aim is to locate nest sites and employ nest-protection measures to give the bird the best chance of breeding success.
Curlews start to come back to their breeding grounds in late March/early April, laying their eggs between mid-April and mid-May. Usually four eggs are laid and incubated for 27-30 days, and all chicks hatch by May/June and are fledged by mid-July. They breed on upland and lowland bogs and on wet and unimproved grassland. In general, they avoid areas close to trees and scrub which can provide cover for predators.
These sensitive birds also tend to be site-faithful, returning to the same patch to nest year after year. Their nests might be notoriously hard to spot, but their spirited calls and airborne acrobatics can give an indication where the birds are likely to have set up home for the breeding season.   
To help the local Curlew Action Team identify nest sites, the public is being asked to report any sightings or calls of curlew over the next few weeks in counties Mayo and Roscommon. Please contact James Owens (083 831747213) or Brian Hughes (089 2280381) from the Curlew Conservation team in East Mayo and North Roscommon, or email  national project manager, Hubert (curlewccp2021@gmail.com).