Curlew’s call now so rare it brings tears to an old farmer’s eyes

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - OUTDOORS -

How do you count a big flock of win­ter wa­ter birds, feed­ing closely in the shal­lows or massed on a sand­bar above the high­est tide? Even with binoc­u­lars or a tele­scope and blink­ing wind-tears away, the shapes shift and over­lap, the min­gled forms dis­solve.

Count the birds in fives, is the ad­vice, with a click of the tally but­ton for each clus­ter. As coun­ters for the Ir­ish Wet­land Bird Sur­vey (I-Webs) set forth in its 25th win­ter, its web­site of­fers vol­un­teers pages on how it should be done. About 1,000 coun­ters have taken part over the years, tot­ting up nearly 53 mil­lion birds at hun­dreds of reg­u­larly mon­i­tored wet­land sites across the is­land.

They keep track of the mil­lion-odd mi­grant birds that win­ter in Ire­land, most of them from breed­ing grounds in the Arc­tic. Cli­mate change af­fects tem­per­a­tures there more than any­where else on Earth, and on Green­land’s north­east­ern coastal mar­gins it is threat­en­ing the breed­ing of Ire­land’s win­ter shore­birds.

Snow may melt faster in sum­mer, but as at­mos­phere draws more mois­ture north from a warmer ocean, it can now lay down a win­ter snow-pack a me­tre deep or more. This year the tun­dra was snow­bound well into July, seal­ing off nest­ing sites and cover­ing in­sects and spi­ders the birds would need for food. San­der­lings, knots, turn­stones and oth­ers had a dis­as­trous breed­ing sea­son, of­ten starv­ing to death, and I-Webs warns its coun­ters that smaller flocks may well re­sult.

An­other ex­treme phe­nom­e­non that could threaten ground-nest­ing birds is the re­turn of “peak” lem­ming, the Arc­tic’s small­est mam­mal. Lem­mings play a key role in the tun­dra, as con­sumers of plants and prey for its preda­tory birds, stoats and foxes. Un­til about 2000, its num­bers in north­east Green­land fluc­tu­ated to a fairly reg­u­lar, but still mys­te­ri­ous, four-year cy­cle. A peak in 2008, how­ever, was fol­lowed by al­most a decade of low num­bers.

Lonely bur­row

Ear­lier, in 1987, an Ir­ish eco­log­i­cal ex­pe­di­tion to the val­leys of Ger­ma­nia Land, of which I was part, saw only a sin­gle ac­tive lem­ming bur­row.

To­day’s eco­log­i­cal re­search stems mainly from a Dan­ish-run sta­tion at Zack­en­berg, set up be­low coastal moun­tains at 74 de­grees N. Here in 2017, af­ter the many lean years, came a re­mark­able peak in lem­mings. Their win­ter burrows had been cov­ered against preda­tors by heavy snow­fall late in spring, and nour­ish­ing grass can be quick to grow un­der drifts hol­lowed out by the thaw.

The abun­dance of lem­mings brought an im­me­di­ate re­sponse in the breed­ing of Arc­tic foxes and stoats and a rare ar­rival of snowy owls. His­tor­i­cally, high num­bers of avail­able lem­mings were thought to di­vert the ap­petites of preda­tors away from nest eggs and chicks. But last year’s sum­mer at Zack­en­berg saw “very high” pre­da­tion on all ground-nest­ing birds – even the long-tailed skuas that nor­mally prey on lem­mings them­selves.

This comes as an in­ter­na­tional global study, in­volv­ing UK univer­si­ties, links cli­mate change to higher pre­da­tion of shore­birds nest­ing in the Arc­tic. Just pub­lished in Sci­ence, it an­a­lysed data from some 38,000 nests of 111 species in 149 lo­ca­tions across all con­ti­nents. It found daily nest pre­da­tion in the Arc­tic has tre­bled in the past 70 years and cited lack of lem­mings as a pos­si­ble cause, along with changes in veg­e­ta­tion and snow­fall.

In Ger­ma­nia Land we watched foxes pa­trolling be­neath the cliffs, wait­ing to snap up the chicks of bar­na­cle geese as they flew from the high nest­ing ledges. Nearer home, the Ir­ish red fox shares the blame for the rar­ity on our win­ter shores of the once-iconic na­tive bird, the curlew. It is down to the last 130 pairs (and per­haps even fewer) dot­ted through­out the coun­try, and there are fears of to­tal ex­tinc­tion by 2023.

The win­ter in­flux to Ire­land of mi­grant curlews from Europe has helped shield

Snow may melt faster in sum­mer, but as at­mos­phere draws more mois­ture north from a warmer ocean, it can now lay down a win­ter snow-pack a me­tre deep or more

the loss of this iconic bird and the si­lenc­ing of the cry – cour-lee – from al­most all the na­tive up­lands where it bred.

In 2016 the re­mark­able Mary Col­well, a nat­u­ral­ist and pro­ducer at the BBC Nat­u­ral His­tory Unit, went on an 800km walk across Ire­land and the UK to raise aware­ness of the cri­sis and to raise funds for con­ser­va­tion. The jour­ney took her from Lough Erne, down the Shan­non, across the mid­land bogs, on to Wales and English grouse moors, meet­ing curlew field work­ers and giv­ing talks in parish halls and col­leges.

At one of them, Col­well re­ported, “no one in a room of young peo­ple study­ing agri­cul­ture had heard of, or seen or heard a curlew”. On the road, she played a tape of its call to an el­derly hill farmer and saw it bring tears to his eyes.

Her jour­ney re­sulted last spring in Curlew Moon (Wil­liam Collins), a book to in­spire hope that new and en­er­getic habi­tat pro­tec­tion and preda­tor control will give the bird a fu­ture. But preda­tors re­main key, and shoot­ing foxes and trap­ping crows seems, to her re­gret, to be a nec­es­sary part of it.

Michael Viney An­other Life

A bar­na­cle goose fam­ily on its nest­ing ledge. When the chicks jump foxes wait be­low. IL­LUS­TRA­TION: MICHAEL VINEY

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