It is the call of the curlew rather than its appearance that is most entangled with our collective memory of trips to the bog or the sounds of summer in the Irish countryside.
That distinctive 'bubbling' call is a special part of our rural Irish soundscape. Bird lovers who have been watching the series 'Smother' on RTE recently might have picked out the curlew call that closes the credits and is used throughout the series as a signal of unsettling or suspicious events. It is, indeed an eery call that may become ghostly if the fortunes of our breeding Irish curlews are not reversed soon.
Curlew visit Kerry during the winter from Scandinavia and Russia. They feed in our mild climate before returning north to breed in spring. The sight and sound of the curlew on coastal mudflats, especially in the winter, is familiar but the population of curlew that breed in Ireland is estimated to have dropped by 95% in the past 3 decades. They are one of our most endangered bird species
They are distinctive as Ireland's largest wader; their oval bodies and long legs picking delicately through damp ground are reminiscent of miniature ostriches. Their speckled brown feathers are well camouflaged among mudflats and bogland. However, it is that distinctive and almost impossibly long, curved beak that really sets them apart visually.
Their scientific name is Numenius arquata; the first word is derived from the Greek for 'new moon' and the second is the Latin for an archer's bow, both highlighting the shape of the beak. Curlews probe into soft ground using the sensitive tip of this beak to detect prey such as worms and other invertebrates.
So, what has caused this dramatic decline in breeding curlew, and if we still see them around the coast, can they really be so endangered? Curlew typically lay 4 eggs in nests on the ground in boggy land or lightly grazed cattle pasture where there is a mix of high grass and rushes for camouflage, and shorter vegetation where newly hatched chicks can forage. Changes in farming practices, increased grazing intensity, draining of bogs, afforestation of marginal land, and undergrazing of some areas has reduced the availability of nesting sites for Irish curlew.
The Curlew Conservation Programme, coordinated by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, was established in 2017 to work with a range of stakeholders, particularly landowners, to proactively help breeding curlew. In Kerry, they focus on the Stack's Mountains, but there are possible breeding sites on the west of the Iveragh peninsula as well.
World Curlew Day (April 21) aims to raise awareness of the plight of this iconic bird. Curlews will be nesting from now, so if you think you see birds over the summer months, give them space and use binoculars to watch them. Contact Agri.Ecology@chg.gov.ie to report sightings and to get involved with curlew conservation or habitat improvement on your land.
The status of curlew on Iveragh is just one of the themes being explored by the LIVE project, which is a collaboration between Welsh and Irish community organisations, academic departments and local governments aiming to enable coastal communities to promote their natural and cultural assets. Visit www.ecomuseumlive.eu/resources to download bilingual primary classroom resources about curlews. Follow @ecomuseumslive on social media for other upcoming resources and information.
With more awareness of curlew and their breeding sites, perhaps we can influence policies and practices and ensure that the call remains a part of our summers and not a ghostly memory of something that we have lost.