Dalesman’s Diary: May 2024

A Dalesman’s Diary

May 2024

A tagged curlew is set free

They have finally returned home… some from hundreds of miles away, others from spots less far-flung: the curlews of the Dales are back among us after their winter sojourn. And for the first time, we can say with complete accuracy exactly where they have been since taking to the wing.

Satellite technology and a pioneering science project means we can now unlock some of the birds’ migratory mysteries and pinpoint precisely where they spent the winter after leaving their Yorkshire nesting grounds in the meadows and moors of the uplands.

Last year, experts from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Yorkshire Dales National Park spent several months electronically tagging seventeen curlews in Wensleydale.

The satellite devices, which were attached to the birds’ backs “like small parachutes”, allowed the team to study their flight patterns.

And now the results are in after the birds, the iconic logo of this magazine, made their way back for the new nesting season in Yorkshire, where they usually find their old breeding mate.

“The migration information provided is allowing us to understand the activities of the birds,” says Dr Katharine Bowgen, a research ecologist with the BTO who has been heavily involved in the project.

Dr Katharine Bowgen with a decoy curlew and a clapnet

The trackers provided fascinating real-time insights into the migratory movements of the birds, which had been humanely trapped using decoy curlews, sound recordings of their cries to attract them, and clapnets.

The birds left their breeding grounds by November of last year, the satellite data revealed.

Of the seventeen birds, mostly male but including several females, only one flew east – the bird, named ‘Green Lime’, more about the naming of the birds later, wintered on the Wash in Norfolk.

“Four of them remained in Yorkshire,” says Dr Bowgen, “although they moved slightly eastwards away from their breeding grounds.”

Three more went to the Dee Estuary, two to Morecambe Bay, one flew to south Cumbria and six went to various different coastlines around Ireland.

By the end of February, the birds were making their way home to the Dales, and ‘Lime Noir’ was back in Yorkshire from the Mersey Estuary.

Dr Katharine Bowgen, right, and her colleague Dr Samantha Franks tagging a Dales curlew

Cold and snowy weather at the start of March failed to prevent the birds’ progress and ‘Colin’, who spent his winter on Ireland’s Moy Estuary in County Mayo, was back at the start of the month.

He was joined by ‘Bee’, who had also wintered in Ireland, on the south coast in County Wexford, and flew back after a stopover on the Dyfi Estuary in west Wales.

‘Orange Lime’ flew across Ireland from Tralee to the north of the country, where it’s thought he was waiting for an improvement in the weather before flying across the Irish Sea. He then headed to Dumfries and Galloway before flying on to the Solway Firth, and then coming home.

‘Orange White’, who had wintered in Lancashire, then headed north to Sedbergh before returning to Wensleydale.

‘Cote’ flew directly back from the Lancashire coast, and ‘Carlos’ returned from the south-east coast of Ireland.

“This has provided us with some really useful data,” says Dr Bowgen. “One bird that left us on June 19 took one day to fly from the edge of Yorkshire to the edge of southern Ireland, where they spent a couple of days pottering around until they settled in the south-western tip.”

The satellite equipment is tested

The researchers are hoping that they will continue to gain valuable insights into the birds’ behaviour in the coming twelve months, thanks to the trackers.

It may even provide insight into how the birds navigate their way home. “That is one of the big mysteries of bird behaviour,” says Dr Bowgen.

“There has been research done in this area, and several theories exist. Current thought is that some birds do recognise coastlines, rivers and roads, and use them just as we would as landmarks.”

Working with local landowners, farmers and gamekeepers, who named some of the curlews – Alderman, Cote, Hunters, Colin, Carrot and Anderson Jack – the team will continue to monitor the curlew population, which has been in rapid decline over recent years.

The other birds were given shorthand names by the BTO ecologists – Xmas, Bee and Carlos – while others were referred to by their colour combinations.

For more information, see the British Trust for Ornithology website: bto.org/

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