Curlews in the City

The curlew is the largest wading bird found in Europe. With a size of 50-60cm in length, and a distinctive long, downwards curving beak, it is a unique and lovely sight for any birder. In the UK it has a red status, according to the Birds of Conservation Concern 4, because of (amongst other reasons) severe declines in its population and range. Usually, I see curlews at estuaries and mudflats, feeding on the shellfish. Given all of this – imagine my surprise when I saw a group of at least 100 curlews, feeding on a school playing field in the middle of Edinburgh!

Such was my surprise, that even though I was walking down a main street, on the way to a park, I stopped to get my camera out and started to take photos of the curlews. In order to do this, I had to raise the camera over a wall – so anyone driving by won’t have been able to see the birds. I will have just looked like a geek taking photos of buildings and playing fields. But, (and this is key to successful urban birding), I didn’t care!

I watched as the birds ambled around the field, probing their long beaks into the mud for worms. That is why they were here – it makes sense I guess, if they can get a tasty worm buffet on this empty field, then why not?

I continued my walk to the park (which was very nice, though a little blustery – I even saw some tufted ducks on the pond) and on the way back I had another look for the curlews. They were still there, but had moved further along the road, to the adjacent playing field – must have eaten all easily available worms in the first one. 

I took a couple more photos, and as I did so another couple of people came over to look over the wall. As I packed my camera away, they asked me about the birds and we had a lovely little chat. One of the questions they asked was: “Are these birds from Scandinavia”. I must confess I didn’t know – we get curlews living here all year round, but I wasn’t sure if more joined from the Scandinavian countries during the winter. When I got home, I looked it up – the answer is: possibly. The UK’s breeding population of curlews move to coastal areas during the winter (so they could be UK birds). Some curlews from colder places like Scandinavia, migrate to the UK for the winter – so they might very well have been Scandinavian!

The UK’s population of curlews is of international importance, and is one of the UK’s priority species for conservation. To find out more about this bird, the threats it faces, and the conservation work being done to protect it, head to the RSPB and WWT websites.