Curlews 1: Ringers 1: Blakehill Farm, Friday, 28th April 2023

Kane Brides and Dan Gornall from the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust kindly offered to help Jonny and me try to catch some Curlew this season. When we last did it, two years ago, we used a combination of mist net and clap net, with a decoy and sound lure. This resulted in us catching and ringing the first adult Curlew in Wiltshire since 1992! Kane and Dan use a Whoosh net to catch their Curlew, and this was what we were trying out this morning.

We met at the entrance to Blakehill Farm at 8:00 and then headed down to the farm to setup the first attempt:

A whoosh net is a large net that is loosely gathered along its rear axis. A pair of bungee cords are fixed at a distance from the net, put under tension by being pulled up to the net line and then fixed in place to an angled pole at each end of the net by use of a pin fitting into a hole in the pole. The pins are attached to a cord and the whole thing is fired by yanking the cord to dislodge the pins, leading to the release of the bungees that spreads the net over the area it covers:

To finish the setup we placed a decoy together with a loudspeaker playing a variety of Curlew calls.

At site 1, as soon as we finished setting up and switched on the lure, a Curlew arrived. It was incredibly aggressive towards the decoy: flying around the setup just a couple of times before landing to explore what was happening. It very quickly attacked the decoy and knocked it over. After the attack it jumped over the back of the setup, so we couldn’t fire the net. Fortunately, it came back for a second go at the decoy a few minutes later, and this time was in a position where we could fire the net and the bird was caught. It was an adult male:

We took all of the usual biometrics: weight and wing-length, and also measured the head and bill length, the feather to bill-end length and the tarsus length. Kane also took a few flank feathers for DNA analysis. This is to monitor for possible inbreeding, as the population has shrunk over the decades this becomes more likely.

The bird was ringed with a standard BTO metal ring and fitted with a leg flag on the left leg. As you can see from the top photo, the flag is white, number 89. Our previously ringed and flagged Curlew has been sighted on 24 occasions since it was ringed, without it needing to be retrapped. This just shows the value of using these leg flags for providing information on the movements of these birds. We know that bird has spent the following two winters in Cornwall, at Porthcaro, returning first to the Cotswold Water Park, then back to Blakehill, and then commuting between Blakehill and the fields around Pound Farm on the Red Lodge estate and around Lower Pavenhill to the west of Purton.

After our successful first go we drove around to the Chelworth side of Blakehill and set up in area 2. Once we had set up and switched on the lure it took a bit longer for it to attract in another bird. This one was much less aggressive towards the decoy. It flew around for quite a while before landing to investigate / confront the decoy. After about 30 minutes of moving in and around the whoosh net it finally got into a position where we could fire the net.

Disaster! Well, not for the Curlew, as it escaped from the net. We could not understand how it got away until we checked the net. Unfortunately, the breeze had increased whilst we were setting up, and on firing it created a billow which caught on the decoy, so it did not fully deploy, leaving space for the Curlew to escape. It circled around for a few minutes before flying off to another part of the site. There is always next time.

It was a very enjoyable morning, especially for me, being able to add Curlew to the list of species that I have ringed. We were serenaded all morning by Skylark song: it seems to me that there are far more at Blakehill this year. I think my next project will be to see if I can map the nests on the plateau. One good thing about where they are, there will be no early silage cutting, as is already happening all over the country, to the detriment of ground nesting birds. I am always annoyed by the way that Corvids and foxes are blamed for the decline of ground nesting birds, whilst the carnage of early silage cutting is completely ignored, but is almost certainly a much bigger problem.

Talking of mapping, I couldn’t help but notice the extensive tracts of Cowslip all over the plateau. Looking more closely, as we were gathering grass to hide the bungee cords and net, I was surprised at the plants to be found in the mix: Plantain, Common Vetch, Meadow Cranesbill, Clover etc. That has to be a good thing.

I plan to run my weekend ringing session along the perimeter track at Blakehill tomorrow, having noticed a reasonable number of Linnet flying around the hedgerow this morning.

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